by Liz Backstrom
There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man someone standing with a hammer, continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people. -Anton Chekhov
About three years ago I went to church. It was shortly after the election of 2016. I didn’t know it, but that was one of the last times I would go. I remember it so clearly, because that was the moment I realized everything I had been told in church was a lie.
I am a survivor of sexual assault. I’ve never felt unsafe in my own church, but I always felt that while few people knew my story, they would be empathetic, or at least sympathetic, if they did know. I hoped that if that were to happen again, the people I called my friends and community would help me. At least hear me out. After all, was I not fearfully and wonderfully made, someone special and important to God?
So I stayed, and pretended my life was normal. Isn’t that what we all do? I grew up feeling that I belonged, because that version of me did.
I remember walking into church after the election and knowing abruptly that this was no longer the case. If it came down to a choice between me and them, them being powerful men who could provide clout in the White House and the Supreme Court, the choice would not be me. It wasn’t that none of the things people told me in church were true; it was that they were true when it was easy.
In that moment I joined the ranks of millions of other people on the other side of that invisible, untenable fence. I saw what had always been true: belonging, for many people, was conditional. The first and most important condition was that no one ever mentioned the existence of the fence. I knew that more clearly than I have ever known anything in my life. So I left.
Since then, I’ve tried to figure out if there is anything left in faith for me, besides cynicism and heartbreak. Many of my good friends have left faith altogether in the past decade, for extremely understandable reasons.
I haven’t been able to bring myself to join them, but neither can I go back to what I was. As Lady Gaga says, “Trust is like a mirror, you can fix it if it’s broken, but you can still see the crack in that mother fucker’s reflection.”
The crack wasn’t going anywhere. And yet, life without faith was empty for me. I tried it, but kept coming back to it, like a kid checking the parking lot after school. You want to hope that someone remembered to come get you.
Over the years I’ve tried progressive churches, unchurches and online churches and I often felt like I was wasting my time. Not because there weren’t good people there, or because I didn’t learn anything. I was thinking of it all wrong.The problem was, I was thinking of church, and God in general, as mine. That’s such a human thing to do.
The other day I was on the subway on a trip. It had been a good trip, and also hard. If you haven’t been to a big city lately, go to one, if you can, and walk around. Really look at how people are doing. If it doesn’t make you stop and think, you probably aren’t paying attention. In one week I saw more people digging for food out of the garbage than I ever have before or hope to again.
On the metro a couple was looking for a seat. It was New Year’s Eve, past midnight, and rides were free. The train was packed. She was tired, the seats were all taken. Someone was sleeping in one of them, his bags of possessions at his feet. Probably everything he owned was in there.
A man with a bike noticed. He was older and probably as tired as anyone else, but he stood up to give the couple a seat – he was getting off in a few stops anyway. Nobody noticed, and nobody cared, except maybe the people who got the seat. But I saw, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I don’t know anything about him, but in that interaction, that man was the church.
“God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we lose ourselves and turn from all that is not him. God needs nothing, asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things,” Annie Dillard writes in her essay “An Expedition to the Poles.”
“You do not have to do these things; not at all. God does not, I regret to report, give a hoot. You do not have to do these things—unless you want to know God. They work on you, not on him. You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it,” Dillard says.
I’m not sure I can say with any authority what God cares about. Not anymore.
What I know is that when we make God ours–our excuse for pursuit of human desires like power, or wealth, or pride in our country, or even the desire to right a wrong–we mess it up. Reza Aslan calls this the humanized God.
“For when we endow God with human attributes, we essentially divinize these attributes. Our desires become God’s desires, but without boundaries. Our actions become God’s actions, but without consequences,” Aslan says in his book God: A Human History.
What is church or a faith but a group of people who share a need, a necessity to trust, and a desperate hope that anyone is listening? It harnesses extant forces into some kind of order and meaning, a place where we go, week after week, to feel a little less alone.
People don’t leave a God, we leave a group, usually because we realize that being alone in a crowd of people is one of the worst feelings in the world. The social contract is broken, and we know that our baggage is bigger than the group’s ability to hold it.
But maybe, all this time, I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve been looking for the church to welcome me back and accept me. I’ve been looking for God in the actions and patterns of others, seeing only flawed human beings, and leaving more empty than before. I’ve been trying to recreate something that already existed, if I knew where to look.
I see it now every time I see someone being the person I wish I had the year I left the church. Listen. Stop trying to be right and try to understand. Do something for someone else, often, when there’s nothing for me in it but standing up at 2 a.m. on the train. Love when it’s not easy.
I can be a part of that pattern again. I will fail, because I’m human and that’s what we do. My flawed, stumbling efforts are not God, but they can help make the church. The rest will follow.
Liz Backstrom is a freelance writer for Spokane Faith & Values and works as a grant writer for YWCA Spokane. She has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and an MPA from Eastern Washington University.