We walked along the rocky terrain of the emptied reservoir behind our house, the four of us. Mom, Dad, little brother, and me. The crevices were like tiny canyons under my four-or-five-year-old feet, each step a carefully placed accomplishment. As I made my determined way, I straightened my arm above my head and clutched the air.
“What are you doing?” my parents asked.
“I’m holding God’s hand so I don’t fall.” I said and smiled. With an unfailing grip on the nothingness above my head, I felt held. I imagined myself something like a princess in a fairy tale, my little fingers wrapped around King Jesus’ hand, our royal garb trailing behind us.
I went to a normal Sunday School at a normal church. I am sure they told me normal things – probably even very good things. But the main source of my education on God was my mom. She told me that God loved me, that God wanted good for me, that God was with me all the time. My mom talked to God out loud like he was an ever-present friend – “thanks for that beautiful rainbow, God!” or “God, help us have a good day today” as we rode sleepily in the car before school. Her relationship with God was easy and assumed; Jesus was as close as her breath.
All of my childhood memories are studded with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I believed that Jesus and I were friends, that wherever I went, whatever I did, I had a someone looking out for me, listening to me, holding my hand. The furthest I felt from God was when I started to wonder if he really loved me in this unconditional, never failing, compassionate way. God’s existence was a given, his love took some re-convincing which he did in more than one “spiritual experience” wherein I found myself utterly covered in a deep assurance – where I all but heard God say, “You and me, kid? We’re good.”
With her heavy influence on the formation of my faith, it’s probably more than coincidence that some part of it seems to have died with my mother. I began looking under rocks before she got sick, but somewhere around the time her prognosis became clear, I started erring on the side of disillusion and that someone I had never been without disappeared.
For the first time in my life, I genuinely entertained the thought that it’s all made-up. I’ve gone through all the apologetics lessons and believed I was objectively dealing with rational arguments against the existence of God, but this was not a mental exercise. This time the faith that was supposed to sustain me simply didn’t; my mother was dying and I wasn’t okay. I saw beauty and light and Love everywhere, but it wasn’t enough.
Once I went there, I was fine. Nothing got better, but it didn’t matter anymore whether or not God cared. Terrible things happen all the time. The long, long history of our species has never been without death and probably never without excruciating death. Beautiful people with all shades of kindness die in the worst ways while cruel and selfish people live on to exploit and destroy. It isn’t new and it isn’t something I can do anything about. In some ways, letting go of a personal God with a caring interest in our affairs is easier than abiding by a God who would watch this happen and choose to let it be. If it sounds insufferably cliche, it is, but it’s also true. I get it now. I used to roll my eyes at such expressions, but that was before I saw what death could do.
And that is sort of where I have been for the last couple years. Sometimes more or less persuaded, but generally in the neighborhood of meh.
Yet there are times when I feel a presence that reminds me of what it felt like to always have my someone. Often, I feel her, too. My mom is coupled now to God – she is intertwined into the moments of worship or gratitude or feeling held; like she’s matchmaking. Like her smirk is over some effort to get us back together. She was never one to force anything so I imagine it’s a long game, but to my mom, Jesus held my hand at the bottom of that reservoir, no question.
But if I’m honest, there has always been a question to me. Even as a child I knew I was holding my hand in the air. I knew that I could fall, that God was not necessarily going to keep me from tripping over a rock. I knew that holding my hand in the air might even make it easier to twist an ankle. I knew that my trust might be misplaced, that I might be silly for thinking God’s hand was holding mine. I knew what was happening in some rational sense, but it didn’t matter. I wanted it to be true so it was. I held Jesus’ hand and I trusted him to keep me upright.
I never expected faith to keep me safe from the bad things in life. I didn’t swallow the prosperity pill. I have always known that it isn’t God’s job to keep people from experiencing painful things. When my mom first got sick I experienced peace with the idea of her dying because God felt close. I hoped for healing, but I knew it would be okay if she didn’t survive. I’m not sure exactly what it was – maybe just the wearing down of walking with someone you desperately love through hell, maybe the reality of it broke what my imagination prepared me for – but at some point, I fell back hard.
And frustratingly, love caught me. Even when I want to, I cannot shake it completely. My mom loved me and I can’t bear to keep that in the past tense. She loves me still. Maybe this is my brain trying to make some meaning out of the existential nihilism death presents, but maybe it’s not, right?
I have experienced God. I have read the Bible and adopted the doctrines and set out my theology in front of me in neat little lines, but none of it has ever meant anything until the points where I encounter the divine. And damn it, I do now, doubts and all. I can be speaking with a friend and realize mid-sentence that it’s not just me anymore; that God is saying something with my voice. I can be watching my kids and the gratitude that washes over me comes from something outside me as well as inside. I can close my eyes while my friends and I sing about love and find myself somewhere else, in a place close to my someone.
As I have wrestled and thrown my hands up in apathy, as I have put this thing down and picked it up in confusion, as I have pieced together and torn apart this part of who I have always been, people who love me have watched and prayed and told me to keep it up. I am endlessly grateful for these people. For the last couple years, I have needed them to carry my faith for me and they have.
But I want it back now. I can’t be certain of anything. Most of the time I am halfway convinced that we are pasting meaning onto the Universe like kindergarteners with busy work. But sometimes I remember what it was like to hold God’s hand and I have hope that I can function in a faulty faith.
So if you’re there, Mom, if you’re trying to set me up, fine. I can lean into places I’m not sure will hold me. Because dammit, love does, every time. And if faith in an unlikely story brings me close to you, then bring on the fairy tale.