A Valentine for the World…and for the Church I Left

When I was a little girl, long before my decision to become a radically devoted follower of Jesus Christ, I loved Valentine’s Day more than any other holiday. It was a day about love which featured two things I especially adored: intimate notes in tiny envelopes, and candy hearts in pastels or chocolate. I couldn’t wait to decorate my box—the lovely aluminum-foil-covered box decorated with construction paper hearts pierced by fringed arrows, my name in large pink letters. Each year, I was woozy with possibility that a formerly-undeclared love would be revealed in a valentine deposited in my Kinney’s Shoes box.

I like you. Do you like me?

And here I am today—worlds away from that second-grade classroom where I spent the month of February in my too-big desk with my Jack and Janet reader propped before me, monitoring any potential deposit in my box. But I’m still watching. Still waiting for a sign that I am loved by a community where I lived for twenty years of my life.

And it’s just not coming from you, my dear ex-brothers and ex-sisters in Christ. You’ve washed your hands of me, haven’t you? I carry a virus you don’t want to catch. I’m out here in the filthy garment, the de rigueur for infidels. I’m the one who was of you, but not really of you, or I wouldn’t have left.

That’s what the Bible says, anyway. I’m the one with the disconnect, as usual. A bundle of contradictions, that’s moi. I’m straddling worlds here, one foot in each, and it’s really not a comfortable way to live in one’s late middle age. I should be situated somewhere on either side with my feet up. Resting, not striving. Relaxing, not watching for a sign 24/7. It’s exhausting.

Enough of my whining. Let’s be real, my ex-brethren. Why should you go chasing after me? I’m the one who left and would go on to write a memoir and a screenplay in which the character based on me is the winsome, adorable star while the characters based on you are crazy-zealous and sometimes close-minded and self-satisfied. A description, you have to admit, that could apply to all of us in the old days. We had the truth, the only truth, and to hell (literally) with everyone else. We were twenty, and I forgive us. Twenty-year-olds have to be myopic to survive. The big picture can be potentially paralyzing to those whose brains have only recently gelled into maturity.

But I turned 30 and finally 40 with this same mindset. In the end, I didn’t persevere. It wasn’t that the seed was snatched away; it’s just that I wasn’t coded for longevity. Somewhere along the way, I started to wither. I wasn’t happy about the drying-up stage, either. It made me panic knowing that I was losing my zeal, my intense infatuation, the green of my youth which had saturated my journals, dense with scripture and prayers and pleas to God to help me be the person I needed to be. And it was a voracious need—I recognize that now. I needed to be holy so badly. My whole life I had come up short in every category. Being a child of God was something I could excel at because I didn’t have to do anything—God would see to it.

And it was so beautiful for such a long time. We were a lovely lot, all those congregations meeting in school basements and office buildings and downtown at the Y sitting in our circles with our guitars and Bibles, drinking coffee for hours and hours and sometimes, daringly, a beer. Everyone showing up to help someone move house or bring casseroles to a mom down with nasty case of mastitis. We loved each other’s kids, too, and held them on our laps beside our own kids and listened to their jokes and sang “This Little Light of Mine” for hours of children’s church. “Don’t let Satan blow it out!” we sang with our wide eyes and serious smiles and we did this all for our children, our future, our little soldiers of the cross.

I close my eyes and see you all—the blue work-shirted brothers, your white-teeth smiles, the gentle Jesus warmth of your eyes, sisters with your reaching hands to fill soup bowls, to smile and duck your heads at the compliment, “This is so good!” You taught me to drive in Water Works Park, the patient way you repeated, Over and then Down with the Clutch engaged. You’re getting it now! The open arms for my fussy children, the gentle voices that soothed them when I was at a doctor’s appointment or a parent-teacher conference. You were just so well-meaning and earnest, so exhaustingly sincere. Goodness and mercy. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by plenty of that all the days of her life?

Oh, that would be me. I apparently had my fill. Do you want to hear about it? You want to talk? I imagine you sitting down across from me, and I must say I see it in your eyes—you feel betrayed. You trusted me and I abandoned you, the church, and everything we all believed in with all of our hearts. I get that. I know you must shake your head if someone brings my name up or grimace at an old photograph you run across and say something like, “Oh, it’s Carolyn. She was such a believer, so strong. She was sold out to Christ, a handmaiden of the Lord. Remember the way she’d study scripture, her zeal?”

Yes, you nod. Yes. But she has returned to her vomit like dogs do. Her filth—does someone say that? That I’m a pig wallowing in the mire of relativism, infidelity, blasphemy? Actually, I don’t believe you say anything of the sort. More likely, you are all just silent and sad if my name comes up. That’s how I used to be when someone left—all my words dried up and wedged in my throat so tightly, so impotent and urgent, my grief nearly suffocating me.

I’m not an unbeliever. No way. My theology is fuzzy, a bit of a smorgasbord—Emerson and Tolstoy and Jesus and Augustine. I would be happily worshipping with Quakers if I could find any; the “inner light” makes so much sense to me. The truth is, I respect faith. I love the sacrificial love God inspires in human beings. I worship the Creator of an amazingly beautiful, diverse, and exciting planet. It’s obvious the hand of God is everywhere and always has been.

Is that enough common ground for peace between us? Don’t answer. I’m afraid it’s not.

Dogma is a Dealbreaker

Here’s a little story. When my ex-husband and I became Christians almost forty years ago, we were ecstatically happy and in love with each other, other Christians, sinners, you name it. He was overjoyed to find another Christian at work. This man, however, was reluctant to accept my ex-husband as a TRUE believer. He made a checklist and asked my ex to agree or disagree with specific creeds: Trinity? Check. Unlimited atonement? Check. Perseverance of the Saints? Check. Discouraged at finding only agreement, the co-worker said finally, “I’m sure there must be some things we disagree upon.”

Herein lies one of the dealbreakers for me. I no longer share that hard-lipped resolve of diehard belief, the dogma of the evangelical, fundamentalist, or as my friend Jim says, the fundagelical. It was me at my worst. You couldn’t be more uncompromising than I was. I picketed abortion clinics and put signs in my own kids’ hands. I sent letters to the editor in which I railed against anti-Christian bigotry in newspapers and magazines. I even wrote to Oprah and told her to get on board with Christianity and to stop preaching her new age bullshit. Well, I put it a bit nicer than that, and she kindly wrote back thanking me for my constructive criticism before signing her name in purple Sharpie.

It was a badge of honor for me in those days: to be stalwart, an unbending disciple and follower of the Lord Jesus Christ who had promised that as the world hated him, so it would hate any of his followers who were walking the walk and not just talking the talk. If the world liked me, then I was of the world, the last thing I wanted. I reveled in being astringent, bracing, and honest. According to the Bible, salt that loses its savor is useless. It’s fit for nothing.

Twelve years ago, I was living a life that was not lining up with my inner convictions and that became untenable. I mean, talk about hypocrisy. It’s a miserable life to be sort of attached to the vine, but not really. The long-awaited fruit not appearing, just some hard and bitter facsimile, while I gritted my teeth and tried to keep myself from the fire.

While I remain ambivalent about life out here with the dogs, my children are adamant that the only real life is an empirically measured life, what we see and hear and touch and taste and smell—this is all that can be trusted. But I grow weary of such easy dismissal. There is such arrogance on both sides of the divide. The Believers despise the pride and self-sufficiency of those who reject God and label them Unbelievers, and in this one word is both judgment and hate. Admit it—there is something akin to hate for those who have rejected what is perceived as precious and inarguable truth.

And these Unbelievers, in turn, reject Believers as deluded, childish fools—grown adults who insist in their belief in something as juvenile as the Tooth Fairy. To a secular world where tolerance is praised above all else, a literalist Christian is deemed nearly as disgusting and morally intolerable as a racist or a sexist demanding voice. I see that all the time, and it’s so unfair.

You must admit this, my former friends, it is more pleasant to have answered questions rather than to be saddled with ambiguity. There is great joy in surrender, genuine bliss to never be overwhelmed with mystery and uncertainty. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. Living like that—one can beam in the face of Katrina, the amputation, the schoolbus of baseball players flying off the overpass onto an Atlanta freeway.

I’m not winning you back, am I? I’m not tugging at your heartstrings and I meant to. I wanted you to remember when we were young and establishing our careers and families and our worldviews and providing each other with family when our families of origin often fell far short. One night, a lovely man hugged me and my then husband good night: “You are our safe harbor,” he said. As we drove home that night, I mulled those words. I wasn’t sitting in a beat-up car at a stoplight in South Des Moines, I was a sanctuary, a light in the window, a refuge for all who sojourned in God. I mattered.

That’s why I worked so hard for so long. I gave my utmost for His highest. You know I did. I gave him everything I had to give until there was nothing left to give.

The World Was Here All Along

Years later, another very different epiphany in a car. My first secular relationship was with an older, handsome man of the world—he was from Europe, a place I had never even thought about very much. Before long, I was traveling to Paris and Istanbul and London and Amsterdam. One night, I was returning to my hotel in Paris at two in the morning. I saw the Eiffel tower from the backseat of a Parisian cab and I wept with joy to have landed in such a strange and unexpected place. My new partner often said of my years as a fundamentalist, “Those people stole your youth.” He was bitter at my loss, but that night in the cab, I only felt wonder. Joy. Overwhelmed to still have so much still before me.

What will it profit a man if he gains the world, yet loses his soul?

You ask me this. I know you do.

I haven’t gained the world. It was here all along, a wonderfully complicated and messy world that I was too afraid to be part of. And how could I lose my soul? God has given me this life, this heart, this desire for all things good and lovely and of excellent repute.

But I don’t want to quibble. Even though we’re very, very good at quibbling and quoting chapter and verse, can I just say again—I like you. Do you like me?

I have known hundreds of believers and only two have contacted me in the years since I’ve been gone. (D.L. and L.W.) Each contacted me after reading my book. They expressed pain at my departure, and they told me they still cared for me. And I can’t tell you how many times I remember the phone call she made and the letter he sent.

To the rest of you, those I potlucked with, laughed with, held your hands, loved your babies, went to your weddings, your sickbeds, your moments of crisis: Where are you? Why have you let me go to what you believe to be perdition? Are you just too busy? Did I never matter that much? Have I fooled myself believing we were bonded for life? Were we only bonded if I continued believing in exactly the same way you did? Was that the only tether between us?

And my scripture, handy-dandy rolodex of the Holy Spirit, flips up this verse: What does the believer have in common with the unbeliever? Light cannot be yoked with darkness. I know. I know. I’d say I’m the devil’s advocate, but I’m afraid you’d take me seriously. Look—you’re drawing the boundaries between us again. Let me ask for a huge favor: can those borders at least consist of a dashed line, one with some space between those dashes, room enough for us to reach through to one another? My life is diminished without you. I cannot speak any plainer than that.

I Do Hear His Voice

If you’ve read this far, you know that I don’t not believe. Oh, yes, I know the devil believes and trembles. I still listen for God’s voice. I don’t hear Him in the TV prophecy evangelist who preaches around the clock at my mother’s house. He says, “World War III” with ecstasy, thinking of the soon coming of our Lord. I don’t hear Him in my students’ papers who give me guided tours of the Roman Road in 2.5 double-spaced pages of eighteen-year-old certainty parroting their parents and their youth pastors, and I know they are “giving testimony” in these papers, a light in the darkness, planting seed that will either spring up or it won’t, but they at least they have done their part to reach the apparently pagan professor.

And I do hear His voice sometimes. Really, I do. And, my dear believers, he’s not yelling at me or threatening me. When it happens, it’s not unlike the valentines I used to long for, a tiny message dropped into my silly and vain heart. I hold these signs close, and like Mary, I ponder them closely.

A few summers ago, my husband and I ended up in Italy on the island of Ischia. Lemon trees lined the street, a sparkling Mediterranean down the block, and we were looking for our daily gelato when I saw the Catholic church. Wordlessly, I grabbed my husband’s hand and pulled him inside. The church was lovely and old, paintings on the walls, mosaic floors, an altar with fresh flowers. It was a real church, not a tourist site, and we sat quietly in a sanctuary where others worshipped. A woman crossed herself finally and stood up. She was my mother’s age, stooped and limping, wearing a headscarf. As she left the church, she began to sing. “Emmanuel,” singing that word over and over, her voice strong and unapologetic. Even when she pulled the door shut behind her, the song now muffled, but there it was: Emmanuel.

I was thousands of miles away from the time in my life when I sang public praise to my God, but my heart broke at this human connection, the cracked vessel through which He spoke. Yes, I thought. Yes. Emmanuel. God is with me. At last, a sign.

And then I left the church.