I’ve always been drawn to religious experiences. Camp fires, altar calls, hours of intense prayer, speaking in tongues, anointings with oil, 24-hour prayer and worship rooms. Fire was my first love, my one true thing. For most of my life I felt certain I had something most others did not – a direct port to God Himself. I believed that if I asked, I would receive. Period. It was my spiritual gift, the thing that gave my life purpose.
And maybe it was my unwavering certainty, or the hours I put into the game, but when I prayed, things did happen. I asked for healing, and people got better. I asked for a breakthrough, and lives changed. I once spent two entire summers praying for revival in a tiny country church in Alabama. Ten years later, that tiny church had a congregation so big and rowdy and spirited it could barely figure out what to do with them. When I asked, others received. It was my job to call the Kingdom of God down from Heaven. It was a continuous loop of faith, and it kept me seeking that fire for a long, long time. A word, an image, a vision, a dream. Anything that confirmed God’s presence. Zeal was my lifeblood. It was who I was.
In time, though, those deep, tearful moments happened less and less. During pregnancy I couldn’t focus long enough to pray, and I was so exhausted I usually drifted off before I felt the curtains part. Once babies arrived, I understood how people could say they didn’t have time for devotions. I could offer up a meager “Help! Please!” while my baby screamed in the grocery store, but I had no mental capacity for intense, intentional meditation.
No matter. I was sure it would come back, in time. I had a gift! It wasn’t possible to lose a spiritual gift, was it? I still had a direct port to God’s heart, I was certain. I was just too tired to access it right then.
Then I joined a church that whittled away at my faith. It insisted my experience meant nothing. Maybe I’d experienced God’s presence in the past, maybe not. The question was irrelevant. My journey had been based on emotion, and our hearts could not be trusted. All that mattered was what I knew, the theology I understood and could articulate. Right thinking led to right living, I was told. And I believed them.
The rooms of my faith grew dark. Uncertain. God felt scary and distant. I no longer knew who I was, and I no longer wanted to talk to Him. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I would say to God even if He showed up again. I couldn’t superimpose my years of fervent, intimate prayer over the theology that steeped my life now. None of it made any sense. Also? I was kind of mad at God for the way my life was going. I felt certain He’d led my family off a cliff, and I didn’t want to die a lemming. I didn’t know where God lived anymore, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have dropped in for a visit.
Then, a miracle. A moment of clarity, like a beam of sunlight shooting through a crack in the wall. I didn’t chisel out that crack – if brightness did exist, did I even want it? – but the light had been searching for me all along. With a single thought, I could see my way out. I don’t know who God is anymore. But this isn’t it. If I leave, I will find Him again. I didn’t feel a thing, I had no moment of fire. But I trusted this one thought to be true. The God of my youth was real. And I could find Him again. Just not here.
We turned in our notice, put a pin in a map, and rented a moving van. That one beam led us out of destructive theology and 1400 miles west, toward a completely different life.
Which, for me, included the Anglican church. Written prayers, ashes, fasts, ancient creeds, sashes, bells, Ordinary Time. Liturgy is a wide stream and I stood in it, week after week after week, until the words no longer ran over my parched heart, but into them. It was a year before I could say with the congregation, “I believe.” All the same, I was home. And while God was still a long way off, in my heart I knew this was the road back to Him.
For three years I’ve wandered down that road. It’s brought me comfort, life, community, and a language I desperately needed. But it did not lead me back to the fiery, tearful moments of my youth, or the once-familiar direct line to God’s heart.
Until last week, when my priest stood at the end of the Eucharist and said, “Last week I felt something. I felt beloved. And I need to be faithful to share it with you. So here is the altar. I’m inviting you to sit with God now.”
Guitars strumming in the background, I watched first my priest, and then the predictable faithful go up front and kneel. I had no intention of joining in. Did I even believe in this anymore? Even if it were still true, did I want it? I didn’t know. If I went back to the altar, what would I even say? But a deeper, truer thought bubbled up. “This is who you are. What would happen if you just went back? No agenda, no list, no expectation. What if you were just open to the possibility?”
I essentially snuck up front. Walking the entire perimeter of the room to avoid the center aisle, I joined in the farthest corner of the altar. I knelt, closed my eyes, and remembered how it felt to be 20 years old and certain of the fire.
God, I’m still here.
After a moment, I sensed a response. I am, too.
I miss the way life was, I said. I miss the depth of relationship. I miss who I was back then. Nothing is the way I thought it would be.
I didn’t move.
Then, another shoot of light through the cracks in my soul. There is still goodness ahead of you.
And I cried. Not the fervent tears of worship, not out of passion or conviction. I cried with relief. I hadn’t heard that voice in nearly 10 years. But here it was, after all this time. It was like hearing from a lost friend. And I cried with relief at the words themselves. After all this time, it felt soothing to have some hope again. My life did not go according to plan. Yet intimacy, depth, trust, hope, love – they are not gone forever. Goodness is still in front of me.
Thanks be to God.