When people hear my story, they often react with surprise that I’m still a Christian, that I haven’t completely left the church, that I’m “not bitter.”
And while all that is true, I still struggle with the broader system of Christian religion, with the history of oppression that has been tied up with our churches and our leaders and our people. I still have anxiety sitting in a pew. I grieve over the misogyny and racism and homophobia that pull down the gospel, that mistreat and abuse the people of God.
Yet, I can’t simply leave. I can’t take off the faith that has shaped me, moved me, held me. No matter how much I have been hurt, the core of me still clings to hope.
The reasons I am still here, like tiny stones weighing me down, can fit into my two outspread hands.
The reasons might be people, not the loud and obvious worshipers of a Sunday morning, but the ones with the quiet and disquiet in their heart, the peace and trouble in their eyes, the heartful giving of their hands.
My mother and the curled paper clippings of worship songs she used to tape to the inside of the kitchen cabinets. The chocolate-covered cherries she left in the mailbox for the mail carrier every Christmas. The look she would give me when I was being self-righteous. Again.
Or my grandmother who rises alone in the morning and reads her devotions, turning pages with arthritic hands. Who gives, and loves, and shares food, and gives some more until she falls asleep on the couch late at night. Who tells me God loves me, even when I’m not so sure.
Or the man I didn’t expect to follow to Michigan. The man who holds me when my brokenness shows, who stayed when I told him he had no reason to stay with a person like me with the cracks in her foundation. The man who doesn’t let go.
The reasons might be the world, this broken dying flooding dehydrating chemical earth.
The inexplicability of dark matter. Quantum entanglement. The speck that is me in a universe (multiverse?) with no edge.
The river that called to me when I sat in the park with the elders for the first time, when they said I had too many questions, too many doubts to make profession.
The grackle on my balcony who fights off all the other grackles in his claim over the birdseed and sometimes looks me formidably in the eye through the window glass.
The reasons might be the words written in my neural pathways.
The “blessed are those who mourn,” the “blessed are the merciful,” the “blessed are those who are persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
The Darkest Psalm, the questioning of God in the words, “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend.”
The trust expressed in another psalm: “The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.”
Or maybe it is something else altogether. It is Jesus touching the unclean. It is Jesus the storyteller, the master of parables. The Savior who didn’t lie to us about the wrongness of death, but who promised resurrection. The Jesus who listened to every question but didn’t always give a straight answer. Who spoke out against spiritual abuse, who restored life to those too broken to move.
It is the God with us, Immanuel.
It is Jesus in the streets.
Jesus in the wilderness.
I’m not here because of the memorized catechism questions, or the Bible songs, or the gold-plated 10-Commandments bracelet I used to wear on my wrist.
I’m here because of the acknowledgment of mystery, the infinity of love, the hard-knuckled irony of grace.
The hope in the face of cynicism. The cry in the darkness. The power of compassion.
And maybe some would say all this exists outside of faith, that love does not need religion. Or maybe the repetition of “faith, hope, and love” loses power in the haze of cliché, in the mediocrity of mass-produced wall decoration.
But then, my hands are filled with the stones of reasons, and my heart is too. I see God in the eye of the grackle, hear him in the protests for justice, in the echoes of those like me who know we are not alone.