I used to be certain. In that way you are when you don’t really know what you’re talking about, when you have all the book knowledge and none of the lived experience, and you think that’s enough. Faith used to be a thing I did. Not once a week, either, but every day. Only, how I did it was in a very specific way; something I was taught that this was the way you did it because if you did it any other way you were wrong.
I’ve written before about how faith has become much more a journey, and less a destination, over the last few years. It’s something that’s hard to describe, partially because it’s too big for words, but mostly because a lot of the words I would use to describe it I was taught were not acceptable.
I used to be sure about some things, and I still am about what matters. In fact, it’s mostly been about learning what really matters. But it’s harder to put down in words. I used to think I’d write a book about faith. I kind of did but not like how I thought. I used to think it would look like a lot of the other books I’ve read, and I’ve read them all. The ones that tell you how to find God and why you haven’t been able to. The ones that, if they don’t actually give you steps, certainly make it seem like it’s a step-by-step process.
I don’t think I could ever write that book. Not because I don’t have anything to say. But because I know now the really important lessons wouldn’t fit. Although, that’s not true. They would, actually, but the book would be very short.
I had a conversation with a good friend over the weekend. One of those that manages to wind it’s way through every subject. We talked about faith, about our backgrounds, the things we used to think concerning it and how far away we are now from that. She mentioned that she could probably sum up her faith in a paragraph. I instantly knew what she meant.
Because that wasn’t always true. There was a time when we were much more convinced about things, and those things could fill a very big book, but they all were really saying the same thing. “Do this. Not that.” And the “not that” part took up more of the space.
It’s been said before, by people probably further down the road than me, how we have become defined by what we don’t accept. Movies, music, people, but really ideas. More than that, ways of thinking. Faith, we’re taught, is supposed to be a predictable thing. You ought to know it when you see it.
My friend reminded me that so much of what I called “faith” growing up was the fear of letting in something, even the hint of it, that might call into question what I believed. This wasn’t about movies and music, but it could hide in them. The way it would hide in books and classrooms and questions. Oh, questions. Only certain questions were ever allowed, and, not coincidentally, they were the ones we already knew the answer to.
And they were right. That is a faith you can be certain about, one you recognize, because it never changes. It doesn’t come in different sizes or flavors. It barely knows another language. You can wear it like a name tag, and the world will hate you because of it, but we’ll love you because we know you’re one of us. But don’t ever take it off, and don’t ever start to wonder if there are people who might have it but it looks different on them so you can’t tell at a glance. Don’t ever ask if it’s possible that the way they talk about it sounds different because they’re different, but it’s not really different when you actually get down to it. Don’t say any of these things out loud, because if you do they will say you don’t have it.
The more I write it down, the more I realize my story is not so different from lots of others. People honestly questioning all the things they were taught was truth. Even now, though, I’m tempted to act like I’m not like them. After all, I didn’t completely walk away.
Ah, but a good part of me wonders, but what if they haven’t either?
I’m reminded, as I usually am in matters of theology, of a story from C.S. Lewis, where he talks about mail. Everyone gets mail. Everyone gets mail from the same place. The postman. I know what sort of mail I get because I can open it. From that, I can surmise what sort of mail my neighbor gets. But I don’t actually know, because I haven’t opened it. I can be foolish and assume they are getting the exact same mail I am, as if my sort of mail is the only “right” kind of mail. Or I can realize their mail is probably different than mine. How different, I won’t know, not without asking them, but I can accept that it’s still mail, even if I don’t read it myself.
Like I said, I used to be certain. It made sense to me that God only delivers certain kinds of messages in certain kinds of ways, that the Creator of the Universe had a limited playbook. It made sense, because anything else sounded like heresy.
Even now I’m tempted to stop you, to backtrack just a bit and explain that, yes, I still consider myself a Christian and here’s why. I wouldn’t do this so that you will better understand but so that you don’t get the wrong idea about me. Because I was taught that letting people get the wrong idea was a sin. That it should be so obvious what sort of faith you had that no one could possibly misunderstand. But I’m not going to do it.
Oh, yes, I do still consider myself a Christian. It’s not that I lost my faith or that I don’t choose to define it. The book is just not as thick as it was. It’s more like a paragraph. Only what matters, really. The rest, well, I’m still figuring out. I’m less certain than I was, back when I had a lot of learning and less living. I’m less certain, but I’m more sure.
It’s a bit like graduating. You study hard in school to pass the test, but eventually you get out and realize there aren’t any tests anymore, at least not ones that you can cram for. The world is a lot wider than you thought, and no one wears their letter jacket so you can’t immediately tell who is who. These things no longer matter. You’re in the real world now. Things require a little more effort, and you won’t always know that you are passing or failing because it’s really not about that. It’s not about what people think. Try your best, but if someone gets the wrong idea about you that’s really more about them. What matters is whether you know what matters, really.
That’s why I’m more sure. Things aren’t as predictable as I was taught, and I don’t think I could be happier. Faith is more adventurous now. More like the kind of book I’d want to read. I am learning what matters. I am learning who God is. Not so much different but so much better than I was taught.
That’s how it usually is, of course. You lose a lot, but you don’t lose what really matters, and I haven’t. It’s just working differently than I thought. There will always be certain things, certain ways that are wrong, regardless. That’s just life. Right and wrong still exist, but they occupy a lesser margin than you thought. Some things are only one or the other depending on how you approach them. And I’m not saying the straight and narrow isn’t straight or narrow, but I’m starting to think it’s less a paved road and a more hike across open country. A path you have to cut yourself. Harder but better.
Certain books don’t scare me as much as I was taught to fear them. That’s what happens when you know what really matters, you become sort of impervious, so it’s not a problem to pick things up, take what you need, and let the rest go. Real faith welcomes questions.
And as for everyone else. There’s always the temptation to categorize people. Even on this side of things. But when, in all of history and faith, has that ever been the right way to go? No, you have to talk to them, whether you like it or not. That’s why conversations will always work, oh, so much better than categorizing. More effort, but better results. And doesn’t that sound so much more like it? Treating others with respect and love, as you would want to be treated?
Things are deeper now. And wider. I find, even on the road, I can turn my head from one side to the other and admire the view, the places I am passing even if they are not my destination. And I don’t really know the destination. No, that’s not accurate. I have a good idea, but I don’t know who I’ll be by the time I get there. And maybe that’s the idea. If I knew now, it’d be because I was capable of understanding it. But you have to grow into the truth. You’ll understand when you get there because you’ll have become the sort of person who can. Until then, hold to what matters.
And go from there.