Closet atheist … not even a splinter of luminescence

This is one of the most beautifully-written and deeply encouraging notes I’ve received. A good reminder to all that there is Easter Sunday after Good Friday, hope after despair, and breakthroughs after breakdowns. What an honor to be involved in small ways in this awesome resurrection process.

We’ve never met, but have a few friends in common … I wanted to personally thank you for sharing your story in your trilogy. In an interesting way, it has weaved its way into my story. I hate to steal away your time, but please allow me to briefly share…
I was raised in a culture that unabashedly embraced conservatism on all levels, in every sense of the word. I studied political science in college and afterwards went to work as one of God’s footmen on this planet — for a Republican congressman. Disgusted at the behind the scenes happenings in Washington, I began to question this political agenda that was in every sense, in bed with conservative evangelicalism.
I left Washington and headed to Seminary, where I met my husband… After seminary we moved to [another city] to start a faith community. We had a strong interest in the historical/cultural/geographical context which the Bible was written. I found myself curious about when Christianity was severed from its Jewish roots and why. This curiosity led me to Constantine. I was more than a little disquieted with my findings. I was squirming actually.
This led to larger questions. Why do I believe what I do? What was the context in which my theology was constructed? More research and more discomfort followed.
In time [my husband] and I were prying deeply into places that had always been off limits, places considered “dangerous” by those in our evangelical circles. I suppose the shock and fear of those around us was not totally unfounded as it did begin killing my God, at least, the God I grew up with.
I became a closet atheist. It was a terrible feeling living in parallel worlds…my outer existence carrying on as always in a leadership position of a church whose community I loved but whose theology I no longer embraced.
When [we] began to vocalize some of our very small doubts and questions regarding theology and politics to family and friends outside of our faith community, we were pushed away and thoroughly shamed. Harsh and hurtful words came down heavily on us, most painfully so from [relatives of my husband] who began referring to him as “Satan’s helper,” “the devils agent,” etc. We were told to shush up, to get back on the straight and narrow, and to stop talking and thinking about such things.
Deep depression sank in. I was in a dark pit of such great depth that I couldn’t see even a peep of light when I looked up, not even a tiny splinter of luminescence. The walls felt as if they were closing in. My chest was tight and I strained to even squeeze a sustainable amount of air in my panicky lungs. We must certainly be the only pastors on the planet who weren’t sure about it all. It was a lonely existence and we thought about relinquishing our position as pastor/church planters.
One day [my husband came with a gift from a friend.] It was the first of your trilogy.
The lamp on the nightstand was on all night and [my husband’s] vocal enthusiasm never desisted. Right into the dawn he carried on. “This is my story!” “I can’t believe the timing of this book in my hands!” He ran out first thing in the morning to the bookstore and purchased the next two books, while I delved into the first book. It turns out that we were not alone in this after all. In two days we had both read all three books.
Let me tell you… in sharing your story, your long arm reached down and pulled us right out of that pit. There was some shred of light again. We found a friend in you. We found a solitary person who knew, who understood what we were going through and it was a beautiful day when we knew we we not journeying this scary path alone. I actually cried from sheer happiness. Of course you never even knew we were so clinging to you. You practically had your own place at our dinner table.
I went running back to God, albeit a very different bare bones understanding of Him. I was still skeptical as I slowly began reconstructing a new idea of the Divine, as best as I could from the Text. It was not easy because we had a totally new comprehension of what the Bible even is…not the magic book felled from the sky that we had always understood it to be.
And then another turning point last fall. I was on the outskirts of ancient Philadelphia on a study tour, in Asia Minor. It was the last day of Ramadan and the Muslims we bustling around preparing food for the end of day celebration as they broke their fast. Our group of 50 dingy dusty hikers speaking an unknown language, trotted down the dirt road and a most beautiful thing happened. Some of the women preparing bread in their courtyard saw us coming and in an incredible act of hospitality, these hungry bodies ran to the road and served us over-stuffed Americans all their bread.
I was thoroughly reduced to tears. It was an encounter with the Divine in a most unlikely form. I would never have expected to meet Jesus in the form of a Muslim family. They were teaching me how to be a disciple of Jesus. In that moment I threw my theology up in the air and let it smash into pieces on the streets of ancient Philadelphia. I had no need to define God, no need to summarize him up in neatly constructed theological arguments. I released God from the theology that was binding Him. If I so define God in my theology and he works outside of it then I will miss him. I will not see it as His doing.
It was like a baptism. A death and rebirth of God. Perhaps he had to die in my life in order to be alive. It was freeing for me and I have to think it was, in a way, freeing for God as well.
On a basic level it really is so simple. Be Jesus to the world. Bring Shalom to chaos. Usher in the Kingdom of God here and now among and amid the kingdoms of this world. Be so close to Jesus that the dust of his sandals is kicked up all over my feet. Be an imitator of Christ. Embody his spirit. I believe this is the all encompassing message of the Text. This broken world will not embrace the message of Jesus in the form of theological arguments, but in how I live my life.
Not only has this release been freeing for me, but my faith has never been more alive and on the move. And I have found great peace in resting in the arms of mystery as well. There is a new excitement for digging into the Text.
[My husband] and I decided to follow your lead and slowly we opened up with trusted friends about our struggles with the way the church was clinging white-knuckled to it’s theology. We began to be honest in our doubts and questions. And an incredible thing began to happen. They started admitting that they too had always had big questions and doubts but never felt it was safe to give voice to them. More and more people began coming out of the woodwork, breathing deep sighs of relief as they realized that they were not alone in their doubts, and that it was okay to be in that place.
Today we are a large group of doubters, wrestling through it all together. We are largely a community of people that grew up in various churches and at some point walked away because it was not safe to ask questions. We are truly a faith community because we walk not knowing but trusting. We sometimes stumble blindly on this exciting journey together. We have more questions than answers but all agree that there is something to this man Jesus and together we encourage each other to walk more as he walked.
And so you see how your story has weaved it’s way into mine. And my story has in turn, weaved it’s way into the story of others. So thank you for sharing. There’s a song that says, “drop a pebble in the water. Watch the circles grow.” The cliche ripple effect at work. You’ll just never know the degree to which you have rescued me and brought hope in a time when I was so despairing, and how that hope has run to deliver hope to others who are despairing. Many many thanks to you.