Note to readers: I wrote this piece weeks ago, long before today’s school shooting in Newton, Connecticut. Today Anaheed, who edited it, asked me how I can still believe in God when terrible things like this happen, and why a benevolent force would allow them to. Here are my thoughts on that, which are hard to articulate because I am so angry right now.
What happened in Connecticut this morning is unfathomable to me. I will never understand how a human being could consciously do harm to a child. I will never understand violence, or come up with a “reason” for suffering. There is no reason behind suffering. What I know is that my faith endures because I believe that people who ruthlessly harm others aren’t acting in the name of the God I know, but rather because of their distance from the love, connection, and compassion that God represents.
When my ex-boyfriend, on the day of his bar mitzvah, told his rabbi that he didn’t always believe in God, the rabbi smiled and told him, “Doubt is the foundation of faith.” I’ve bumped up against my own crises of faith many times, and wondered how to make sense of how the merciful, compassionate, and loving God I believe in could allow atrocities like genocide, rape, racism, murder, and war to happen on his/her/their watch. In these moments I accept my confrontations with doubt as another pathway to learning about and connecting with that which is holy, and I embrace that alienation as an essential part of my faith.
And it’s at times like these that I really need God most, to help me find good in a world that suddenly feels so awful. I find it in the teachers, the rescue workers, the law-enforcement officers, the churches, and the mental-health-service volunteers who rushed in to protect and to help the people at Sandy Hook Elementary School today.
This piece expresses some of my personal beliefs about life and its transitions. I want to clarify that my spiritual ideas about the meaning of death and the endurance of the soul do not in any way lessen or undermine my horror at the tragedy of the loss of innocent life. Today, in the face of unimaginable sorrow, I join my nation in mourning and use my faith as a call to action to do whatever I can to help prevent atrocities like this in the future.
My friend Meggan, a feminist theologian, once called me a “divining rod,” by which she didn’t mean that I can find water or other hidden treasures buried in the ground, but that I have an ability that seems just as uncanny—no matter where I am, whatever the situation, I can always find God.
When I was three years old, my mother taught me to sing spirituals and my father taught me to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and those things taught me how to pray. I haven’t missed a day of prayer since. I always start by thanking the most holy, the goddess, nature, the divine, and the big kahuna (who is so big they have countless names, including God, Allah, Shangdi, YHWH, Yahweh, Nana, Igbo, Elohim, Zhu, Hu, etc. etc. etc.) for the blessing of living another day.
God has always just made sense to me. The same way that some people feel sure that there is nothing beyond this physical world, that there’s no such thing as a soul and that all that awaits us after death is decomposition, I have no doubt that my soul has always known life beyond the body it currently inhabits, and that everything in our world is connected to and by something bigger, smarter, and stronger than we are. I’ve experienced this force when marveling at gleams of white light dancing on palmetto trees and hearing my grandma and aunties singing gospel music in church and in the kitchen. I’ve also felt it during dark times (like today). God has always walked with me, showing up to show me my blessings and to hold on to me during heartbreaks. My relationship with God makes me feel like I have an all-knowing, nonjudgmental free therapist, teacher, and friend who listens to my soul 24/7 and never rejects me. This feeling has never wavered. My faith in religious institutions, however, has.
I grew up in a politically progressive household, but freedom of religion was not really an option for me growing up. I was expected to attend church every Sunday, and won extra points if I got up early for Sunday School. I was taught about “sins” (i.e., all the things that supposedly piss God off) and was told that being a “good girl” who honored her elders, never lied or cheated, and was kind to everyone was the surest pathway to heaven. One of my earliest memories is being dragged out of our Baptist church when I was very small for wailing from my pew after sitting still on a hard wooden seat in itchy tights and too-tight Mary Janes for three hours. My parents gave me a time-out and I never acted up in church again, but it wasn’t long before I started to seriously question the confines, both physical and behavioral, that the church seemed to draw around worshipping God. It seemed to me, even as a kid, that God represented freedom rather than repression and restraint. I spent my childhood confused about why I was “bad” for not wanting to go to services even though I spent my private time reading the Bible, praying, and trying to live my life by the golden rule.
That confusion was the beginning of a long process of searching and questioning. I had always resisted the idea that I would only be saved if I conformed to other people’s expectations of, and limitations on, me. I knew that my personal relationship with the highest power was more holy than anything I was being told in church and that God had my back. I started to look at the church’s teachings with a more discerning eye, filtering what I was being told through my own strong sense of spirituality. I accepted the ideas that I believed in—like love, justice, service, and compassion—and silently rejected anything that smacked of injustice or bigotry, like homophobia and sexism. I liked talking to God about my most intimate yearnings and challenges without needing anyone else’s validation that my approach was “right.” With God, I could always be myself.
I continued to develop my own spiritual practice and relationship with the spirit through my teens and into adulthood. I can say that from the moment I let go of my blind loyalty to institutional rules and rituals, I became more comfortable with letting the divine spark within guide me in the right direction. It has never steered me wrong. My spiritual path feels like space exploration; the possibilities are as vast as the universe and as innumerable as the stars.
For a long time, though, I hid my spirituality. I was afraid that my secular liberal friends would think my beliefs were silly, and that my conservative Christian friends and family would worry that my open-mindedness would damn me to hell. I recall an atheist ex-boyfriend telling me that he was “surprised someone so smart could be so naïve.” It annoyed him that I always believed that God was guiding me when he knew for sure that nothing exists but the cold reason of blood, bone, and dirt.
But then, a few years ago, I joined several interfaith women’s circles and an intergenerational community that affirmed my right to my own distinct religious experience. Through my involvement with these groups I was able to reclaim my spiritual authority and give myself permission to carve out my own holy path without apology. (And by the way, no one—believer or nonbeliever—has rejected or condemned me.)
Today, my relationship with God feels unlimited. I talk to the lord all day long. I take advantage of long subway trips and elevator rides to pray and meditate, to connect with the spirit, and to remind myself to be calm and compassionate in the midst of commuter chaos. Sometimes people look askance at me when they see me breathing deeply on the train with my eyes closed and my raised palms resting on my knees, but I just don’t care.
It is my understanding that God is love, and that love motivates action. My commitment to activism has always been driven by the notion that living a life of service is one of the most sacred ways to give thanks. I learned this from my Baptist parents and grandparents, whose activism during the civil rights movement had roots in the African-American church, and from hearing stories about how slaves used spirituals as a means to communicate, educate, organize, and rebel in their quest for liberation. I am now at a point where I feel comfortable acknowledging what led me to this point—a strong urge, a loud internal whisper, and a tingling shiver that I know well: my spiritual calling.
After years of seeking, I forged a new spiritual frontier: myself. Releasing myself from other people’s expectations and allowing myself to receive God’s blessings and wisdom in ways that feel honest, righteous, and real has been, in my life, literally the best thing ever. ♦