My room is quiet and dark. It feels safe. It’s the perfect place to sleep. A whisper of movement stirs me. Was that a sound I heard? Still groggy, I dare not move. I hold my breath trying to blend in with the stillness of the room. My eyes fail to pierce the darkness while my ears strain to detect any movement or sound. Now fully awake, my senses intensify. Ever so slowly I retreat deeper beneath my blankets. Frozen with fear, my heart beats like the pounding of a million tribal drums in unison. I am terrified it will reveal my presence. I squeeze my eyes shut foolishly hoping that if I can’t see anything then IT can’t either. My 5-year-old imagination, so often my gift, is now my enemy.
There is a monster under my bed. I know it. I am sure of it.
Forty years later my anxiety is buried deep, almost a forgotten memory. I am now a Bible teacher. And truth is, I am vested in this identity. Much of my life has been an educational pursuit of Bible and theology. But now, after decades of time and effort in this discipline my memories are awakened. I have come to discover that figuratively speaking, I’m still just that little 5-year-old boy afraid of the monster under his bed. It’s been a long time coming but now I recognize my monster… and it is God.
I do not feel safe, in part because I am torn between love and threats. I am being crushed in this crisis. What do I do? Where do I turn? To the One you fear? That’s an even scarier proposition. I needed a better narrative.
My friend Ellen is a beautiful, bright, and talented, woman who, as a valuable member of a ministry team, has been helping others grow in their spirituality for over two decades. She has been happily married to Luke for almost the same amount of time. Of course, their relationship isn’t without its ups and downs but it is solid, it is good. If you ever sit with any of her four children for any length of time you will hear them sing her praises, even if it is sandwiched between complaints about doing their chores. And if you happen to visit them, as I have repeatedly, you will be welcomed immediately. And not long after, you will see and feel the warmth and laughter of a home that is safe because above all, this family loves each other.
Yet, all is not well in Ellen’s soul.
Not long ago Ellen, Luke and me were talking and I began explaining some of the changes that were taking place in my head and heart. They were intrigued with my journey because both had worked with me in the past. As our conversation was ending I said, “You guys, it’s hard for me to articulate all this, but I just keep thinking that God is better than I ever imagined.” I looked over at Ellen and she was visibly emotional so I asked if she was ok. She nodded ‘yes’ but her watery eyes betrayed her.
“Is there something you’d like to say?” I offered. She nodded again, this time ‘no’. She gave her best smile and simultaneously held up a finger signaling to wait a minute. Her body gave a little shudder as she attempted a deep breath trying to gain a measure of control. Then with tears slowly moving down her cheeks she mouthed the words, “Not now.” I wanted to get up and hug her and tell her I understood. But I didn’t.
A few days later I received an email from Ellen that eloquently explained her thoughts and feelings from our conversation. Here is a part, which reveals her emotional pain that surfaced so readily that evening.
“I feel a little like the person who has read romance novels to escape a bad marriage or relationship and escapes for a while wishing that reality could be more like the story, only to end a book and have to gear up for the emptiness that follows and the shame in wishing for more. That is exactly how I would feel after reading books like The Shack or Chronicles of Narnia. Fighting with theology has been a process for some time.”
I wish I had hugged her… I did understand. I think many of us do. Ellen needed a better narrative too.
I resonate with Ellen. Maybe you do too. I tested the god of my theology and I found him to be an anemic caricature, an imposter really, sitting at the religious table. So, I too, have now excused myself from that table because I have rejected the god seated there. And yet, I still believe.
But you may be thinking, as I did, “John, aren’t you just changing one view of God for another? That it’s just a matter of time before you discover that he’s just a different version of the same monster?”
Maybe, but I don’t think so, because I no longer live in fear of this God. The bait and switch is gone.
You see, I’m not trying to reinvent a god who pleases my imagination and makes me feel better. I think I’m reclaiming a story of God that has been around for a very long time.
PS) I invite you to join with Paul and I in a conversation like this one. We have no agenda to change your opinions or beliefs. There is nothing hidden in our pockets. We’d like to hear your questions and share with you some of ours. Questions that set us free from religious dogmatism and led us to rethink the story we had been given.
Think of us sitting at a table where every conversation is treated with dignity because they matter. The table is open and you belong there.
To join us, reserve your spot at the Open Table Conference here.