It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
This is a tale of two cities. Or rather, a tale of one city and one vast, untamed wilderness.
You see, I grew up in that City- the one that gleams, the one that boasts no litter and many rules. In the City, law and order reign. “Be certain of your faith” is rule number one. It is the guiding light.
“God lives here in this Sanctuary, in this gleaming monument to His greatness. Of course, God lives in us but not all places or people. Certainly not in the places of ill repute that litter the edge of the City. Certainly not in the homes or hearts of sinners.”
Citizens of the City say that we fear God and that’s why we clean up our behavior, sweep truths that make us feel shameful under the rug before company comes over, throw out doubts and questions with the evening paper, plaster smiles on our faces before we open the front door.
Citizens help each other by pointing out each other’s many sins so we don’t anger the God that lives in the rafters of the shining Sanctuary. “Stop cussing!” is a favorite of mine as a City Citizen. Some sins, especially those related to
s.e.x. are almost unmentionable, but we mention them anyway, whispered behind freshly washed hands. Never in public. That would be shameful. “Some sins are worse than others.” our teachers would say in so many words, often with a shoulder shrug. What could they do?
We Citizens read the Holy Book as an instruction manual instead of an autobiography. Unfortunately, it’s written in languages most of us have no hope of knowing, and it takes place in ancient cultures that we can’t possibly know everything about. But if we just try hard enough, read and pray and really think, we can unlock The Truth. We can know what God meant. “There’s only one right way to read the Holy Book! We don’t know all of it but we know most of it and anyone who disagrees with ‘the right way’ is DANGEROUS!” my teachers would shout, their invisible-to-them lenses perched on the ends of their nose.
While we say that we must be certain of our faith- no doubt, only smiling affirmations that all is well, the flip side of certainty is fear. The City runs on fear. Fear that God will smite us. Fear that our many sins will be seen and judged by other Citizens. Fear that any different person or idea will cause us to be drawn into their web of unrighteousness, too far gone for any help. And, of course, fear of The Wilderness.
“God doesn’t live out there! God needs rules and buildings and monuments. He can’t live in the dirt and the filth. He needs structure. That’s how He works. The people that live out there, well…they’re hopeless. Lost. We might take brief excursions to entice them into the City, where they can live properly, but training for that takes many years and the work is very hard. They aren’t very responsive. We must all pray for them- that their hearts will change and they will find solace in the certainty of faith we provide here in the City.”
In a way, fear and certainty do provide a level of comfort. It’s good to know what’s expected. After all, what do humans like, if not certainty. As the story goes, Our Mother and Father risked, and lost, paradise in the pursuit of the knowledge of good and evil. We gladly give up our freedom for a chance at certainty.
But the problem with certainty is that it is elusive. Sure, we all pretend like we know everything and have perfect faith- we must for the good of everyone and so God won’t be mad at us. But at night, under the light of the moon streaming in our bedroom windows, away from the prying eyes of our helpful Brothers and Sisters, we peek behind the curtain of doubt.
For me, the first crack appeared when I overheard a conversation between Citizens of Color talking about their lives. One of the rules, the one that maybe best indicates that we’re the “good people”, is that we love all Citizens the same, regardless of the color of their skin, their poverty, their language, their nationality. All Citizens are loved by God the same and deserve the same treatment and dignity. These Citizens, people of color, said that was not their experience.
What? But it’s a rule- an immovable, universal rule. Citizens love all Citizens the same. How can this be so?
A crack, my very first, appeared in the wall behind me.
How can this glimmering City have cracks? How can God live in an imperfect City? Will this crumble all around us?
So, I started listening more. I got bold enough to ask Citizens who didn’t look like City Leaders about their experience. They told me quietly about their experiences. You already know. Even if you say you don’t, you’ve been secretly listening too.
I started to notice that women and people of color were ‘helped’ the most, their behavior closely monitored for any deviation from the dictates issued to us by our White, Male God or gleaned from the Holy Book, translated and interpreted almost exclusively by White, Male Leaders.
That’s not fair.
Once I noticed one crack, I noticed more and more of them. They were everywhere. Some had been plastered over, covered up, but new ones formed almost immediately. Why didn’t I see these before?
Eventually, I realized that I no longer had certainty. I had broken rule number one. These teachers, well-meaning or not, taught me to have a faith that was formed on bedrock, but I’d discovered cracks in my firm foundation and it no longer felt secure.
So, I packed my bags and left for the only other option. The Wilderness.
The first time my toes hit the sand, I felt exhilaration. After a lifetime of faith buttoned-up to my chin, I was able to breathe.
Take in the sweet smell of sand and fresh air that isn’t tainted by the stench of sacrifices made without heart.
To be fair, there was, and still is, quite a bit of trepidation about making my way in the wilderness. Fear is out here too but it’s different. In a way, I guess I did fear God in the City, but it was the wrong kind of fear. It wasn’t respect or admiration. It was fear of disappointment, or worse, damnation.
I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to escape that fear fully.
It will follow me, like a little cloud, all the rest of the days of my life.
But instead of letting that fear control me, make me turn and run back into the City, resplendent with all of it’s gleaming cracks, I faced it.
“Fear, the City isn’t what I thought it was. I can no longer live inauthentically and pretend that all is well, when
Who can I trust? Who can I trust when it seems everyone’s agenda is simply to make us fall in line and not address our questions? Who can I trust when it seems that we worship at the idol of simply keeping things the same because it’s comfortable? Who can I trust when my Leaders say, ‘There are no cracks!’ as they stand in front of a wall about to collapse on them from a million fissures, large and small? I’m going to make my way in the Wilderness and, Fear,
I hitched my backpack further up my shoulders, as it bulged with memories and assurances that nothing can separate me from the love of God, and set out to find others in the Wilderness.
I thought it would be lonely out here; the City made it sound terrible and wild. But I’m actually finding people, collecting them as I make my way on a path that feels untrodden (but really isn’t). We’re a rag-tag group- some who left the City willingly, some who were cast out for their many sins, some who were never in the City to begin with.
But we have community. We lean on one another for strength.
Over campfires, we sing and speak of freedom and beauty, beauty unrestrained by rules or expectations. We share books and stories of those who have gone before us.
We admit our weaknesses and our doubts openly. We scream them into the sky, where they are swallowed and embraced as God whispers that She loves us anyway. We have found healing in those whispers.
We are wild and untamed and free.
And do you know what is even more exciting? God is out here too.
This is not the God of fear and damnation that I learned about in the City. This God is not afraid of my questions. She sits with me, after I’ve danced in the rain to cleanse myself of the stench of needing to be right.
She meets me in places when I least expect it-
in an unexpected conversation with a friend,
a peaceful moment where I notice She’s with me in my breath,
in the hope that I feel in raising my children out here in the wilderness.
The God that I’ve experienced out here is wild and untamed too. She can be found anywhere in anyone; maybe even in me.
Sometimes, at night, I lay gazing up at the blanket of stars- the brilliance of which had been drowned out by the artificial light of the altar of self-righteousness that I carried with me in the City.
And I hum.
I hum to myself old Methodist hymns that my Grandmother played quietly on the piano when she wasn’t cooking or attending one of my many, many performances.
I hum hymns and laugh as I remember my friends and I swaying back and forth in the back of the Sanctuary like we were drunk, heaving our imaginary pints of ale, because the hymn’s inelegant melody was clearly taken right out of a bar.
I do not miss being “helpful”. It is a heavy burden to feel like you must police the actions of others, as well as your own.
I do not miss the stiff services meant to honor God that held meaning for some, but not me.
I do not miss pretending like everything is fine, that I am fine; that God will not be fine if those things are not true.
I do not miss ignoring my doubts, or worse, being afraid of them.
I do not miss being afraid of people who are different than me. They make me more human. I feel more human.
It would be easy for me to say that I don’t think that God really lives in the City. Some days, I am tempted to write it off completely as a Tower of Babel- a gleaming monument to the man’s desire to control everything around him. But the Truth is that I’ve discovered that God can be found anywhere.
And if God can be found anywhere, that means She can and does exist in the City too.
I don’t think that the wilderness is meant for everyone. It’s fine if you like The City, feel comfortable and happy there. I do hope, however, that the Citizens can see the cracks and not be afraid of them. I hope they can see the cracks and, instead of patching them hurriedly, address the foundational issues that made the cracks in the first place. I hope that the City can figure out a way to offer structure without building a prison. I hope that the City can find a way to honor God and the Holy Scripture without fearing them.
I have hope because God is there too.
The Citizens, too, are Her beloved.
As for me, I’m going to hang out here and make a way in the wilderness. The sheer vastness seems daunting but I’m comforted by God’s presence as we stand side-by-side and survey the wild, untamed future.