As a teenaged Christian, 30+ years ago, one of my least favourite Bible verses was Romans 1:16. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ” was held up to us as the ideal Christian attitude. Bold and unashamed.
I struggled with that because I knew that too often I was ashamed. Embarrassed by my genuine and fervent faith in a world where sincere Christian belief was seen as a little quirky; embarrassed by my membership in a church that was offbeat even within Christianity. It was partly genuine shyness that made me an unlikely candidate for knocking on doors, asking casual acquaintances if they were saved, and dropping easy references to the Lord’s love and guidance into conversation with non-Christian friends. Parly shyness, and partly a sense that most people didn’t like this kind of behavior, found it off-putting rather than endearing.
Looking back, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t go around asking strangers in airports, “Where will YOU spend eternity?” But that same tongue-tied reluctance to raise issues of faith meant that I often stayed silent when I should have spoken. I was no longer a teen but well into my late twenties when I sat in a room with a group of well-educated, articulate women writers older than myself at a writers’ retreat. An older lady who was a devout Roman Catholic passed through the room and mentioned that a man whom many of us knew was gravely ill, and said, “You should remember him in your prayers.” After she left the other women turned to one another and tutted about the fact that, while the man’s condition was serious indeed, asking for prayer was a silly response. “Really, does any intelligent person actually believe in prayer anymore?” one woman said, with scorn in her voice.
Just one of a hundred times I was silent when I should have spoken. I struggled under the burden of feeling that I was ashamed of the gospel.
As I meandered into midlife, a second problem arose — related, perhaps, to the first. Just as I was covering up my deep committment to my faith in many of the secular (academic, artsy) circles in which I moved — people knew I was “religious” but not why or what it meant to me — at the same time, I was keeping my mouth shut in my other world, my church world, about doubts and questions that nibbled at the roots of my faith. I could sit in Sabbath School classes or Bible study groups and sound holy and wise without ever hinting that I harboured doubts about everything from the inspiration of the Bible to the literal interpretation of the Creation story. I felt like I was splitting myself into two people: the devout believer who moved in one world, and the intelligent skeptic who moved in another, and never the twain would meet. I wonder now how many Christians live with that duality?
About ten years ago, beginning what I optimistically think of as the middle of my life, I was very impressed by a university prof in my graduate program who said that to some extent we are all different people in different settings, but that the goal of an authentic life should be to minimize that difference, to make the different faces we wear as congruent as possible. This has become an important guiding principle for me, and for all the bad press the internet gets in many ways, it helped me to take big steps forward in pursuing that goal. On various internet discussion boards (including the sadly defunct Religion Debate board at ParentsPlace, and the very-much-alive Ship of Fools), and here on my blog, I was able to experiment with bringing both parts of my life together. I started “outing” myself as a sincere, believing Seventh-day Adventist Christian who asks a lot of inconvenient questions and struggles with a lot of doubt.
I’ve been blogging a bit lately over at my book review site about young-adult writer and video blogger John Green, who is one of my current heroes. A few weeks ago, reading an interview with Green, I came across this simple statement by him: “I’m not embarrassed by my faith, and I’m also not embarrassed by my doubts.” Like I said, it’s a very simple statement but just because of where I was at the time, it hit me right between the eyes like a velvet-wrapped gold brick. Or something.
I’m the world’s least visual, least artistic human being, but my one minor artsy-craftsy indulgence is that I sometimes get the urge to make collages. Not often, but now and then, the endless tangle of words in my head overwhelms me, and I find I’ve painted myself into a mental and emotional corner that words can’t get me out of. That’s when I sometimes end up leafing through old magazines looking for pictures that capture what I’m feeling, in hopes that images will take me where words can’t. So a couple of weeks ago, as I was trying to get my mind and heart in shape for Lent and the approach of Easter, I spent Sabbath afternoon making a collage (shown above) based on that John Green quote.
For me, it still represents a goal more than a reality. I have been so lucky, or blessed (and yes, which word I’d use would depend on whom I was speaking to) to have found places in the real world, as well as online, where I can bring my whole self, faith and doubts and all, to the table. My amazing workplace, the group of friends I’ve acquired in my forties … there are places where I feel safe and not embarrassed about any part of who I am. But I still struggle with embarrassment, or shame, and with wondering when it’s shame and when it’s just appropriateness. In a Sabbath-morning adult Sabbath School class, for example, I feel like bringing my genuine doubts and questions into the discussion would be like dumping a bag of my kitchen garbage on the floor in the middle of the group. Messy, smelly, self-centred and not appropriate to what everyone’s there for. And while I pray for all kinds of people (though not as much as I should) I know there are people who would be offended if I said, “I’m praying for you” when they tell me their troubles, so I think maybe it’s better just to do it and not say it. I still struggle with when and where to share my faith, and when and where to share my doubts. But I am dedicating myself to not being embarrassed by either of those things. Someday, I just may get there.