When Your Relationship With God Is ‘Complicated’
I would love to be able to point to a book — the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Tao te Ching, the Analects, Campbell’s ‘The Power of Myth’, Plato’s ‘Five Dialogues’, Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ — any book, even the Tao of Pooh, and say, “There, that’s how I understand God. That’s what God is to me.”
But I can’t.
My relationship with my higher power is a little more complicated. A bit like writing a book synopsis — I find it hard to pin down in a few well-chosen words.
But along the way, on my journey from faith to disbelief and then, to a very different kind of faith, there were three watersheds. Three major turning points in the relationship.
Being raised in the church, singing in the choir every Sunday, that was my “normal” growing up.
By six, I’d already mastered the prayers in our “Order of Service” and within a joining year of Junior Choir, I’d committed to memory every prayer from the Morning Song. The regular Sunday early service. Soaking in the shame and blame along with the shared cup and communion wafers.
“Oh, God, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under thy table.
We have done those things we ought not to have done, and left undone those things we ought to have done and there is no health in us…
But thou, O, Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders. Spare thou, them, which confess their faults. Restore thou, them, who are penitent…” — Book of Common Prayer
Beautiful sonorous language. Eloquent words. Painting a vivid picture — us on our knees. Grovelling beggars. People of little worth, who chronically failed to do right. And, by the time I was eight, a scary picture.
I felt the weight of those words pressing on me, unrelenting, magnifying the guilt I carried, and crushing me into the dust. “No matter how good you are, you must be better. No matter how well you did, you must do better. No matter how much you did, it wasn’t enough, you left too much undone. Change your sinful ways. Suffer. Pray.”
Well, I prayed when I lost my birthstone ring. Does that count? And I found the ring, though the act of prayer may simply have calmed my mind enough to search in the scary darkness under my bed more thoroughly…
But, I didn’t understand how everyone let it all wash off them when they walked out of the church doors. Shed like water from a duck’s back the moment they stepped outside.
I was confused. Worried. How could my parents behave so normally— even cheerfully— after hearing those words? Didn’t they feel it, too? How could their spirits have been refreshed?
Now, I see how the stain of the shame I carried from the undisclosed assault coloured my thinking. Back then, all I felt was I would never be worthy. And nothing I could ever do would make me worthy.
The concept of undeserved Grace was beyond my grasp.
As I grew older, attending church became torture, so I learned to not hear the words, even as I spoke them. I learned to bury them along with the feelings.
Most days, I could put it all away. And I have many favourite lovely memories of the music and special holy days — candle-light Christmas Eve services, the glorious music, Easter Sunday…
After I married and my self-proclaimed atheist spouse decided we wouldn’t go to church, I was relieved to comply. Uneasy, but relieved.
God faded into the background. Oh, God was periodically called upon, as we do at times. “Oh, my God… God dammit…”
But God was no longer part of my active life. And certainly not part of our Sunday morning routine — which often consisted of my spouse nursing a hangover while hiding from the scream of the vacuum cleaner, revenge is sweet…
But, when the relationship ended and I became a struggling art student, I was exposed to heady debate on religion and the nature of God, as well as questioning my need to believe in any kind of God.
I started reading Joseph Cambell and wondered if he was on to something. Perhaps, as Freud, Nietzsche, Berlin and others suggested, humanity needed a God, so we invented one.
But rational thought rather than faith had more appeal, especially to someone who’d been taught to ignore her instincts. Someone who’d been told again and again they’re wrong and not to be trusted.
Someone who’d learned her choice in partners was dubious at best. Sometimes, downright dangerous. So let’s not even talk about faith — in anything. And certainly, don’t ever pray to meet the right person…
“When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” — Oscar Wilde
“Sometimes the blessing is in the prayer not being answered.” — Andrena Sawyer
And then, life being what it is, everything fell apart. Again. Another relationship imploded. And though it should never have lasted as long as it did, it was hard when it ended. Painful. Now, I’m a three-time loser.
“Here’s the thing about hitting rock bottom. You can either stay down there or get back up. It’s your choice.” — Hannah Camacho
“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” — J.K. Rowling
And so it began again. The long hibernation of wound-licking. The searching, the rebuilding. The fight to re-establish some new kind of “normal.”
I became a practicing Buddhist and found great comfort in the rituals and chanting for a time. I still have my Gohonzon, the Japanese-inscribed scroll which was, briefly, a symbol of my faith. Or, of my search for some kind of faith. It’s still safely tucked away, wrapped up in the bottom of a drawer.
I flirted with Catholicism. Learned to say the Rosary. What is it with my brain and memorizing things?
But neither one quite fit. And though helpful, neither one really filled the void or helped me answer the big questions about my life.
So, again, I set faith in a higher being aside as not enough. I threw myself back into rationalism and psychology for the answers to my conundrums. Such as why I kept making the same choices, while thinking, no, believing with all my heart, that this time, things were different from the last time.
How did I keep setting sail only to end up on the rocks?
“When I’m at the bottom looking up, the main question may not be ‘how do I get out of this hole?’ In reality, the main question might be ‘how do I get rid of the shovel that I used to dig it?” — Craig D. Lounsbrough
Funny story, and my third watershed. At this very low point in my life, one summer evening, a friend and I had enjoyed some single malt.
And then had to be somewhere else.
As we were driving across town, and my friend was rattling on about his almighty higher power, I glanced up. The red stoplight had a glowing red “F” in the middle.
At first, I thought I was seeing things. After all, we had been indulging. In the next second, though, I thought, “My last name begins with ‘F.’ It must be God, reaching out to me.” We’d been indulging, remember?
I poked my friend and demanded to know if he could see the same thing — the bright red “F” glowing in the stop light. He nodded and then wanted to know why I’d asked.
I hear you laughing, and I did too, once I realized why the letter “F” was there. And it was confirmed by the fire sirens we heard shortly after.
The glowing red “F” was a traffic signal to let you know a firetruck needed the right-of-way at the intersection.
But, at that moment, I needed there to be a God who believed in me in a way I was unable to believe in myself. And, once I realized God didn’t need my belief for God to exist or not, but I needed there to be a God; someone who would walk with me and share my sorrows or my joys; someone who would always be there for me, it suddenly didn’t matter anymore.
Intellectual pride was swept away. And there was God. Right where God had always been. Waiting for me to turn around and notice.
If you were to ask me today to describe the God of my understanding, I’d probably show you mountain scenery, cathedrals, stained glass window and wonderful light dancing across a woodland stream. Miles of beaches. Fields of blooming, wind-tossed flowers. Happy children. Old people smiling. Hard-working hands.
I’d play music for you. Symphonies, ballads, Celtic reels, jigs. I’d immerse you in harps and drums, Bollywood dances like ‘Jai Ho’, piano classics, choirs, a capella groups — the Pentatonics and Home Free. The Candian Brass, Lightfoot, Alabama, Glass Tiger — the list could take another page or two.
On a dark day, I might flood you with a barrage of brutal, gritty pictures — a record of mind-numbing despair, grinding poverty. War-torn streets. Children with no hope. The dead and the dying.
It’s all part of our world — God’s world. And we are the ones who must do something about it.
“It is in vain to expect our prayers to be heard if we do not strive as well as pray.” — Aesop
The God of my understanding
“For some, there are obstacles in life, and they believe God will intervene. That is how they understand [God]. It’s part of being human…in an uncontrollable world, we want to know someone is in charge”¹ And for some, it’s God.
But I’m content to live with the lack of control in some ways, the uncertainty. The God of my understanding (or lack thereof) is too big to fit into a single box or a single definition. The God of my understanding is God, Allah, Yhwh, Shiva, Krishna, the Creator, the Great Spirit, the Enlightened One…
God is — and that’s enough.
¹Rev. Linda Yates in a recent interview by Sara Jewel in the United Church Observer, March/April 2019