Are you there, God? It’s me, Miriam.

“Godless America. That was the title of the This American Life episode I chose to listen to on the way to work on Friday, April 17th. Due to my interest in religion, theology and politics, I found the subject intriguing and pressed play. The first act was mildly informative, but mostly political information I already knew, so when the second act began, I was not prepared for the earthquake that was about to occur in my heart. The second act was the faith story of a woman named Julia Sweeney.

At the start of her story, her experiences really resonated with me. She had grown up in Catholic school and believed in God deeply. She even considered becoming a nun for a short period of time. Upon growing older, though, she lost some of the zealousness of her younger years.

One day, two Mormons came knocking on her door, and she invited them in to hear what they had to say. As she listened to their story about the planets and gods, and Joseph Smith and the gold plates he found and how he translated the ancient hieroglyphics imprinted on them, she found herself thinking how ridiculous and just plain whacko these stories sounded.

But then, she recognized that from an outsider’s perspective, the story of God impregnating a young girl and giving birth to a baby who was simultaneously all God and all man could be taken as ludicrous by outsiders, too. This encounter with these Mormons piqued her curiosity about the Bible she had claimed to believe in her entire life. She felt called to become more active in her Catholic church and take her religion more seriously. So, she signed up for a Bible study group and began to seriously read the Bible for what she said was really the first time.

As she read, she encountered stories. Lots of them. Stories such as Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah, in which angels visit Lot’s home, but their visit is interrupted when the evil men of the city come and ask to have sex with the angels. Lot says no out of respect for the angels (Phew!), but offers the men his virgin daughters instead (Say WHHAA?). As Julia read much of the Old Testament, she came upon stories like this that she found so bizarre and confusing, she couldn’t believe they were actually part of the good book, the Bible.

My faith story has similarities to Julia Sweeney’s up until this point. As a child and adolescent I was deeply devoted to my faith and believed and followed everything taught to me wholeheartedly. As an adult, I’ve carved my own path, looking over the faith tenets I readily accepted as a child, and rebuilding my faith brick by brick upon my understanding of the character of God, and the critical thinking and curiosity He’s placed in my mind. I, too, have considered how although other religions sound completely crazy to me, friends have stated firsthand how extreme the stories of Christianity sound to them. I, too, have become completely baffled by happenings in the Old Testament and scratch my head over their meaning. I, too, question if they’re even real, or even pertinent to my life at all. In short, I was very much on the same page as this woman, Julia Sweeney, and was incredibly curious to hear the continuation of her story.

So, with Julia’s doubts and questions only increasing through her reading of the Old Testament, she grew discouraged that her lifelong relationship with God was not becoming clearer to her, but rather, muddier. She eagerly looked forward to reading the NEW Testament, in which Jesus would be introduced. She felt confident this would clear up all her confusion.

Except that when that time in her Bible study arrived, it didn’t clear up anything for her. She found Jesus to be bossy and demanding, easily annoyed at the disciples for not clearly seeing the meanings of His parables and all-in-all not demonstrating the humility she’d always imagined. She referenced a point in the Bible at which Jesus condemns a fig tree to death because it did not have any figs on it for him to eat, and how “out of character” that seemed for how she had always viewed Him. When she arrived at scriptures about His death on the cross, and how He suffered for us, she grew angry because Jesus suffered for us supposedly, but was His suffering even THAT bad? Her brother had suffered from cancer for years, and Jesus suffered on the cross for just a few days.

Slowly, as her doubts grew like vines over her mind, in the stillness of one afternoon, she heard a whisper deep inside. “There is no god.” It said. She began to hear this whisper all the time. And what was hardest, she didn’t hear God fighting back. She heard nothing else. Just silence. She began to allow herself to view the world as happenstance and a product of random selection, and not as the God-breathed world of her childhood. She began to accept that her brother, who had battled cancer and passed away wasn’t in Heaven. He was just simply…. dead. She mourned his loss all over again, and mourned her own non-eternal soul. At the end of it all, she simply… let go of God.

That is how the story ended. The podcast clicked off and the car was silent. The silence was heavy.

I drove my car for a few moments in this quiet. My chest was tight. For so much of this woman’s story I identified directly with her struggles, and it ends with her letting go of God?? After the genuine and sincere faith struggles I shared with her, this was really the end? Will this be my end? Even the thought of it caught my own breath. Am I on her path? Is atheism where I am headed? Hopelessness overwhelmed me.

I turned on a worship playlist I’ve listened to a million times, rolled down my driver’s side window and tearfully began to pray.

“Are you there, God? It’s me, Miriam.” I began, tongue in cheek. “My heart and mind are in a million places. Did you hear the things this woman said about you? About Jesus?! I’m so frustrated, but I also identify with her doubts in so many ways and I don’t know what to do about that. Are you real, God? In the midst of so many stories and mysteries and laws and belief systems, are you really there? And if you are, how do I serve you? Where do I even begin?”

Tears fell harder and harder as a storm of desperation arose inside me. Desperation to hear an answer. To be blinded like Paul on the road, or have a pillar of fire to follow like Moses, or hear an audible voice from Him and know FOR SURE that what I have been believing and serving my entire life was not my feelings or emotions or childlike belief, but an actual, tangible God. I asked over and over.

God did not blind me. The pillar of fire never arrived. He did not speak in an audible voice to me.

What He did, was lifted His hand and ceased the storm. The waves of doubt raging around me, threatening to overtake me, simply stopped. Stillness.

Look at that bird, flying overhead. There I am, Miriam.

The sun rising in the sky, shining on that grassy hillside and drying up the morning dew? I hung it there, in space. There I am.

I am the author of the peace in your heart.

I am in the love of your family.

I am in the faces of the children you are about to go teach.

I am your deepest hope.

I am here. I always have been, and I always will be.

I began sobbing uncontrollably, no longer from desperation, but from RELIEF, as God poured a newness of His presence and His closeness into every crevice of me. My consternation and hopelessness were stubbornly edged out because there just wasn’t enough space for the storms of doubt alongside the flood of HIM.

A song came on that for many years has been a sort of anthem for my faith, and again it was renewed as the exact manifestation of what God was doing in my heart at that very moment:

“Walking, stumbling, on these shadow feet, towards home: a land that I’ve never seen.

I am changing – less and less asleep – made of different stuff than when I began.

And I have sensed it all along. Fast approaching is the day…

When the world is falling out from under me, I’ll be found in You, still standing.

When the sky rolls up and mountains fall on their knees, when time and space are through –

I’ll be found in You.”

My thousands of questions were not answered. I still don’t know why Lot gave his daughters to those men, or whether Jonah was actually in the belly of a whale. I don’t know how old the Earth really is, or what church I’m supposed to go to, or whether I’m supposed to go at all, or what the correct views on politics are. I may die without ever knowing any of those things.

But I know that Jesus Christ is the only answer I have found that is the antidote for the emptiness and hopelessness of this world, and the awfulness of my own soul. He is the calmer of the storms of my heart, and until I find something else that can offer the unspeakable, unexplainable peace that He can, I will continue to call Him my Lord and Savior.

Although I will always have questions; although doubt will always be a part of the darkened corners of me, today, more than any other day in my whole life, I am happy to declare the following:

JESUS CHRIST IS ALIVE IN MY HEART. Oh, Church, come stand in the light – OUR GOD IS NOT DEAD, HE’S ALIVE!!! When I call on Him, He IS there. There is NOT silence. There is NOT emptiness. There is a very real peace and hope that I cannot, despite my best skeptical efforts, assign another source to.

As I have taken this journey to find my faith, I’m so thankful that I have not chosen to close that door, or allow the doubt to win. When we close the door, God will not pry it back open against our will. It is a door only the owner of that heart controls. This is why it’s so vitally important to keep asking if He’s there. NEVER stop sending that question out; always keep the door cracked so He can find His way back in. Julia Sweeney’s story is NOT my story. I am holding on to the only life raft in this world that I’ve found worth grabbing on to, to keep from drowning. I’m not letting go of God. I’m holding on to Him as tightly as I can.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anon
    Apr 19, 2015 @ 11:26:26

    Very touching emotional story. I am curious, I have questions, and I hope you don’t take them the wrong way, because I just genuinely want to know. Why do you hold atheism in such a negative light? You seem to equate it with hopelessness, while for most atheists, they equate the freedom from this god of the bible as the most liberating and joyful experience of their lives.

    You write: “But I know that Jesus Christ is the only answer I have found that is the antidote for the emptiness and hopelessness of this world, and the awfulness of my own soul.” Where does this sense of emptiness and hopelessness come from? I know for me, it came from the teachings of the church. I know the feeling of awfulness also came from the teachings of the church. It ended with me realizing that it’s just marketing, convince them they’re sick and then supply them with the antidote, and by the way it only costs 10% of your income (for life). As an atheist, I remember the first time I realized I did not have an awful soul, but rather that I was a good person with an ability to grow and become even better. It was an amazing experience. And for the record, you’re an amazing soul Mir, don’t let anyone, not even a god, tell you otherwise.

    The issues brought up in this reflection do not even capture slightly the atrocities in the bible, In Deuteronomy 22:23-29 you will find laws that require rape victims to marry their attackers and another where they get stoned to death for not screaming loud enough while being raped. So the question is, why do you want to hold on to this god so badly? What does this god offer that that something like humanism does not? My answer would be nothing. Humanism is a by far superior moral system, so god doesn’t offer morality. Perhaps the main thing he offers is freedom from hell, but I would consider a relationship based on fear of punishment a quite abusive one.

    Thanks for reading my questions. I hope you get a chance to reply. The end of religion can seem very scary, sometimes even scarier than breaking up with a loved one, because of the fear of what’s next. If I can end with a verse from Linkin Park that may sound applicable, even though it probably wasn’t meant to describe a spiritual journey:

    What was left when that fire was gone?
    I thought it felt right but that right was wrong
    All caught up in the eye of the storm
    And trying to figure out what it’s like moving on
    And I don’t even know what kind of things I said
    My mouth kept moving and my mind went dead
    So I’m picking up the pieces, now where to begin
    The hardest part of ending is starting again

    The hardest part of ending is starting again.

    Reply

    • miriambernard
      Apr 21, 2015 @ 22:53:12

      Wow. I’m honored that you would read my post and give the thought and time to write such a genuine and inquisitive response. I’m pleased this is spurring discussion, because that’s exactly why I chose to write my experience down. My ultimate goal is to come into contact with truth, so I’d never be offended by your questions, just as I hope that my own doubt and questions don’t offend those around me.

      It’s taken me a few days to respond to you, because working out one’s entire worldview and putting down on paper ideas this massive and entirely er,… not final… is super difficult. So take this response as a continuation of the conversation and not as my personal creed, okay?

      Your comment suggests that there just two choices: evangelical Bible-swearing Christian straight or atheist. I’d argue there are oh-so-many steps in between. For instance, to quote a book called “War of the Worldviews” I’ve been listening to recently, “What religion fails to do, spirituality steps in and makes a way for.” While I can imagine life without the gruesome and far-fetched stories of the Old Testament, I can’t imagine a worldview in which spirituality, consciousness and divine interaction aren’t responsible for the universe.

      In that way, I’m curious if your atheism is a rejection merely of the Christian God of the Bible, or if you’re of the belief that the universe as we know it is a product only of randomness, physics and time? For me, with the arrival of mankind at consciousness and awareness, experiencing phenomena such as love, art and beauty, I see no plausible origin that does not involve purpose, orderliness, creativity and craftsmanship (alongside physics and time). I have not come into contact with persuasive reason for a “science only” answer to the origin of the universe. This is part of the reason I find atheism hopeless. While those who claim it may find freedom in a reliance on science and mathematics, I believe this dependence upon only what can be calculated with the five senses is its own version of captivity.

      Regarding my mention of the awfulness of my own heart, I recognize that I’m speaking from a church-raised background, and that as a result a fair amount of guilt may be interlaced in my worldview. However, even in an attempt to step outside of that background, I’d still argue that mankind, in general, is inclined toward self-reliance, survival and selfishness before altruism. If you’re not convinced of that, spend a few days with little kids. Lol. Benevolence is something we’re taught – something that goes against what comes naturally. Even the very idea seems to directly contradict what secular physicists explain about natural selection and survival of the fittest. Sure, many atheists, in order to link human goodness to the natural world, bring up animal species that are naturally magnanimous, but in most instances that altruism generally leads back to helping that species survive. When I mention my own awfulness, I am not stating it solely as a product of a guilt-preaching church, I’m saying it as somebody who’s lived inside my own scumbag brain for my entire life and am tired of my own prejudice, superiority, temper, vanity, etc. etc. I could go on for longer, but I think you get the idea.

      This former point is why I feel Jesus’ teachings were so revolutionary and hugely relevant. His ideas take everything that could come naturally to a person and flip it on its head. As much of a hippie as He was, His teachings were not “just do what feels right”. Because let me tell you, when I get blatantly cut off on the 57 freeway, what feels right is to run that asshole down and put him in his place. That’s where “nature” would get me. But no, Christ sets precedence and expectations for His followers that, when abided by, make one into the most astoundingly loving, world-changing version of themselves. Secular humanism, on the other hand, offers no credit to any source for such good-heartedness, and therefore seems to make man his own god. We simply can’t do that. Either a higher power is to receive acknowledgement for man’s capacity for goodness, compassion and beauty, or the universe itself is. Either it was bestowed upon us by something or someone, or we found our way to it through billions of years of random probability and happenstance, but we definitely did not bring it about by our own power, in which case, I condemn my selfishness and strive for love, always.

      That last statement turns my brain into a massive downhill snowball of questions, such as, “When there is no higher power giving it purpose, why strive toward goodness at all? Why would it matter?” My thoughts turn quickly toward anarchy when random probability is at the helm of the universe. Also, “If nothing besides the cosmos exists – nothing besides what man can perceive or measure with his five senses and mind – why has the world – to the farthest corners and for all of history – searched for the meaning of it all and the ‘why’ of our existence? How could that yearning create itself if there was nothing to satisfy it from the beginning?”

      “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

      Atheism equates to hopelessness in my mind because there are pieces of the human experience that find no satisfaction in a secular universe. There are longings in the human heart that leave it endlessly searching for something beyond itself. Therefore, I maintain that if the thirst exists, somewhere out there is a big, tall glass of water just waiting to quench that thirst. (Funny, I wrote that sentence and immediately thought of how Jesus refers to himself as the Living Water. Oh, snap! Okay, okay… I’m a product of the Christian church. So sue me! 😉 )

      Well, dang, I’ve gone and done exactly what I was trying not to, and written a whole other blog down here. Sorry. I’d love to hear your response to any of these ideas, if you feel so inclined. Have a great day!
      ~ Mir

      Reply

  2. Anon
    Apr 22, 2015 @ 13:46:12

    This could end up being a blog post with 30 blog posts in it haha…

    I did not mean to imply such black and white: fundamentalists vs. atheist, I know there are many steps in between as I have been a part of most (if not all) of them.

    I am an atheist, which is a position on belief. My position on knowledge however, of whether or not any type of deity exists is agnosticism. This is merely a technicality though, because it’s impossible to prove there is no god, the same way it’s impossible to disprove the flying spaghetti monster (real religion, look it up haha).

    It is however, very possible to disprove the existence of the Christian god, and of every god from all the man made religions. The reason for this is because Christians (for the sake of brevity I will only address the Christian arguments) make very testable claims about their god. For example: the earth is 6,000 years old, god created the sun to go around the earth, there was a worldwide flood 4,000 years ago, there were a whole bunch of corpses that rose from their graves and visited Rome 2,000 years ago. All of those, completely dis proven. The reason I don’t incline then to a more deist or progressive form of Christianity is for two reasons:

    1. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there is. Every single piece of scientific evidence we have supports the idea that the universe as we know it a result of physics, time, and randomness as you put it (although I don’t think it’s as random as most theists claim). There is a reason 93% of the members of the National Academy of Science (the most elite group of scientists in the country) are atheists. At the end of the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham they were asked what, if anything, would change their minds? Ken Ham said nothing, Bill Nye said any one piece of evidence, I second his statement in regards to my own positions.

    2. At first I felt empowered by my progressive views on religion, but then I had to admit that I was just picking and choosing what I liked from the bible. This is the equivalent of creating your own god, which is the equivalent of worshiping yourself. And according to you, making man your own god is not good.

    *That second point cannot be emphasized enough. Once you start dismissing what you do not like, and start basing your religious views on what you do like, you are simply worshiping a god you made up that happens to agree with everything you agree with.

    *How is living a life based on reality and evidence a form of captivity? I have to be honest, this seems to actually be a rather concerning statement. If we don’t need evidence to learn truth, what is to stop the atrocities of religious zealots who fly planes into buildings, or deny civil rights to other human beings because they were born different? Or stop to think, “hey maybe I shouldn’t burn all of these Jews alive.” Only reason and evidence, neither of which come from self-induced faith. It wasn’t faith that freed the slaves, gave women the right to vote, created civil rights, or will give gays the right to marry. Reason gave us those things, most of the time in spite of faith. Living a life based on reality and evidence seems to be the only way to be free, and the only way to give us a safe, fair, and just society.

    I literally have a thousand more questions. I cut my response to about a third of its original length because I didn’t want to detract from those last two points, as they are my most pressing questions in regards to your response. It was painful to cut that much out haha. If I could quit my job and have this conversation forever I would.

    It is such a relief to hear a theist give credence to the questions of atheists, and I know you always have been open, so I’m not surprised, I just have to reiterate how amazing it is.

    Reply

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