If I was to try and summarize my life story in a few sentences it might go something like this:
I grew up in a home that valued faith and Christian tradition. I went to Church every Sunday, I attended Sunday School and Youth Group and Christian Private school, and eventually went on to graduate from a Christian University. And then I went through a crisis of faith. After a period of searching I came back to God, got married, became a youth pastor and eventually started a family.
Of course there are a few curves and corners I could add to this, including a decision to step out of Pastoring and an international adoption. But when I take these sentences at face value it’s hard not to feel like it comes across as a bit cliché.
The Measure of a Cliche
A cliché can be considered, according to its definition, “an expression or an idea that has become so predictable or overused it has lost its original meaning or effect.”
So what happens when this represents your life? How do you find meaning in a story that feels too familiar, too predictable, somewhat like the overused baptismal testimony I gave all those years ago.
Or maybe a better question might be the one Tom Albrighton asks in his article If cliches work, use them, which is the question of why (or how) clichés become clichés in the first place? I found the way Tom attempts to answer this question helpful as well, suggesting that they become cliches BECAUSE they’re so useful.
Albrighton goes on to explore this idea further, suggesting that “clichés endure because they serve a unique purpose… they get worn out precisely because of their appeal.”
In other words, when I look at my story, rather than see the cliché it is possible for me to see a story that serves a very real purpose, a story in which who I am today owes much to who I was or where I’ve come from. In this sense, growing up in a faith based environment is the thing that prepared me to face this crisis of faith, and it is the crisis that eventually helped me to see that my faith had meaning.
Carolyn Gregoire says it this way in an article for the Huffington Post, simply titled Cliches.
“(Some cliches) have stood the test of time because they do reveal certain universal truths about human nature.”
My story, for as much as it feels like a cliché, is important precisely because of the truths it has “revealed” about my life, about God, about others, and about the world to which I belong.
A Cliché In Crisis
In the summary above it should be easy to point to my crisis of faith as a pivotal point in my life story. This is the moment in which so much of what I thought was true about my life, God, others and the world was shaken. And stirred, but not in the cool, collected James Bond kind of way. The illuminating affects of post secondary education made all the more immediate in the light of friends and family who seemed to be walking away from Christianity (and faith) had left me uncertain about where I stood. It kind of deconstructed my world and left it in pieces, and when the old paradigms had been torn down I found it difficult to consider what exactly to build in its place.
To say this in another way: Scholarship recognizes the idea of a worldview, or the stuff that shapes our underlying view of the world, to function largely according to the hidden or unspoken (or assumed) beliefs that help us make choices and decisions in the day to day. This is referred to as the iceberg analogy, with a small portion of our worldview actually visible, or above water, and the vast portion of our worldview hidden out of sight, or under the water.
What my crisis of faith did is it attempted to first pull these hidden beliefs to the surface and then secondly threw the entire iceberg into question, including questions about how deep the iceberg goes or even if the iceberg exists at all. And when the iceberg was gone it was gone, leaving me with the feeling of sailing aimlessly on the water with no sense of direction, unable to reconstruct a belief system, another iceberg, to take its place.
This crisis of faith wrecked me. It not only reshaped how I viewed my story and my upbringing, but in order to find my way again I was forced to exchange those old beliefs for something I remained equally uncertain of. And this loss of identity, partnered with a growing sense of uncertainty, caused me to spiral into a place of despair. I became severely depressed. My undiagnosed anxiety was through the roof. I felt hopeless. Mostly though I felt stuck, stuck between two worlds of thought, two competing worlds of experience that seemed like they couldn’t be farther apart or more irreconcilable.
And frankly, the feeling sucked big time.
I remember falling asleep one night with the weight of this existential crisis (for lack of a better term) weighing particularly heavy on my shoulders only to be woken in the middle of the night in sweat and panic. A familiar sense of fear and dread that I recognized only from the chronic nightmares that had plagued me as a young child resurfaced. In that moment I had become convinced that God no longer existed, and when I say God I mean my life, my identity, and ultimately my sense of community.
I got up the next morning understanding that I would never be the same again. I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, choosing at that moment to go through the motions in a world that no longer made any sense, a world in which I no longer belonged.
Or more importantly, a world I no longer accepted.
Where Crisis Meets Community
There is something to be said about the loss of community that follows this sort of personal, existential crisis. Neiburh argues in his exposition on the revelation of God that without a common experience, a shared experience, community is impossible, or if not impossible certainly incredibly difficult. And when you lose that sense of community it becomes easy not just to feel lost, but to remain lost.
I admit I remained lost for far too long.
But I also couldn’t seem to let go. And so I continued.
One foot in front of the other.
Coming To Terms with the Idea of God
I waded in these waters for a while, wearing a smile, pretending to belong. But eventually it all came to a head.
I was house sitting at the time, and following a lengthy online discussion about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life I found myself contemplating the vanity of it all. I had resigned myself to sitting alone in the dark with only the dim, shimmering light of the moon left to break the silence. And in this moment I decided to have what I determined would be a final and fairly direct conversation with God. In all of the questioning and pretending I had also been looking, or hoping desperately for a way forward, a solution to my discontent, something that might make sense in a senseless world. I looked into other faith systems, religious pluralism, atheism, yet very little of it made sense when I tried to rationalize it all against my confusion, my questions. The only thing that really made sense was this- the life I was living, that we all were living, was at least in some sense of the word, a lie. A biological construct intended to trick our brains into believing that life has meaning, that the things we think and feel and do according to countless chemical reactions and genetic markers are in fact expressions of some form of personal autonomy.
And yes, I realize this sounds like a cheap form of nihilism. Just because this might be true doesn’t mean people can’t find meaning and beauty and purpose in the midst of this realization.
But that still didn’t make any of it true.
And for as much as I tried, I could not get past this fact. Now that the curtain had been pulled, now that I had seen the light, I could not go back. I could not get past the idea that the only way for any of this to have meaning was to accept the delusion of created or manufactured meaning. And no matter how much philosophy I read or how many great thinkers I approached, once you sifted through all of the colourful academia, it all essentially boiled down to this truth. And if I had let go of my old value system based on reason, how could I in turn accept something that felt so unreasonable.
I was literally at the end of my figurative rope. And so I turned to thoughts of suicide. The reality was that I could no more reconcile life with God than I could make sense of life without (a) God, which admittedly really narrowed my options. And so I decided if I started on a cliché, ending on a cliché didn’t sound so bad. So I went all in. I made a final bargain with God. Give me something, anything or it was time for me to let go of the rope.
And with that I fell asleep.
And God Spoke into the Darkness
I still remember the feeling of getting up the next morning. The shimmer of the moonlight was gone. The clouds had rolled in, and with it a cold, bitter rainfall followed. The world had not changed. I was still exactly where I had left off the night before. My words had fallen on deaf ears, the ears of a God who did not exist in a universe that had no real meaning.
But then something happened.
God spoke into the darkness.
The voice arrived unexpectedly and within the doors of the Church (the irony is not lost on me). It arrived through the timely and faithful prayers of an individual whom I did not know and who did not know my circumstance. In a place of deep skepticism and unbelief God used this individual to interrupt the path I was on and remind me that God still cared.
I know this kind of religious language, this sort of religious experience, is subjective and suspect at best for many. There is no sure way to qualify it or explain it. But I also know that when it comes to telling my story, I cannot simply explain it away either.
It turns out that God had spoken to this individual while they had been praying earlier that day, and God gave this person words tor write down and to share specifically with me. I call it my Letter from God. When I encountered this person they were hesitant at first to tell my anything. They felt a great deal of uncertainty and fear surrounding what they had to share. But eventually they did, and nearly at the moment when I was about to walk back out the door. And the words of this letter hit deep into the darkness of my struggle. It not only recounted my personal and private conversation with God from the night before, but it provided me with a way forward.
I remain forever grateful that this person had the courage to share this letter with me. When I first heard the words the only thing I could think to do was laugh. Not the best reaction I’m sure, but it was all that I could think to do at the time. And while there were other things shared in this letter, the single word that sticks out for me is this- remember. And ever since that day I have found myself on a journey of self-reflection, of remembering.
Remembering To See God Again
I have revisited and reimagined my child hood experiences finding new ways to engage with my story. And the thing that continues to surprise me is the way God left His footprints all over my journey in ways I had (and have) long forgotten. And here’s the thing. Although this letter represents a pivotal point in my life story, my faith in God moving forward did not depend on this letter to give it meaning. This letter did not take away all of the struggle. I still have my doubts. I still have my questions. I still struggle to trust that there is meaning in the midst of so much vanity. What it did do though is show me how to best position my life in a way that could allow this uncertainty, this mystery, to draw me closer to God rather than push Him away. And that comes through the act of remembering and learning how to remember well.
It is by the grace of God that I am able to believe again. And it is by the grace of God that my belief looks different today than it did before. And here in lies the challenge of rediscovering faith in my life. All of us live with unspoken assumptions that inform our choices every single day. For as much as this is called a worldview, it is also an act of faith. As our character is shaped by the things that surround us- culture, biology, family, relationships, societal norms, environment- we also learn what it means to trust in the sort of foundation that these things afford, allowing us to make choices and act accordingly without needing to second guess or scrutinize our decisions.
But every once in a while something ends up letting us down, and so we begin to question our choices and we challenge our assumptions. We lose some of our ability to trust. And sometime this pushes us to make a decision to change our environment, to allow ourselves to be shaped by something new, something different, to surround ourselves with a fresh set of cultural, societal and environmental influences.
But in the end we still come back to the same place, living according to the unspoken assumptions that inform our choices, simply from within the context of a different environment. Sooner or later all of us must choose to learn what it means to trust in something again, otherwise we aren’t truly living. And the thing about trusting is that it frees us necessarily from having to depend on manufactured meaning by offering us meaning that comes from outside of ourselves, the sort of meaning that can only come through the presence of a shared community, the presence of an “other”.
The Hope and The Hopeless
And what it came down to for me is this. I believe all of us fall into one of two categories, those who have hope and those who have lost hope. Pare back our unspoken beliefs far enough and every single one of us will find we sit somewhere on either side of this picture, even if we don’t recognize it in the moment. And where we sit informs how we make and determine our choices.
I found myself on the hopeless side of this picture, and what I realized was that I could not live without hope. And for me, God, or the idea of God, gave me hope. Having faith allowed me to trust that God had given my life meaning rather than trying to create it or manufacture it myself. And this meant I had a place to begin again.
One foot in front of the other.
Only now I could see the footprints of God going ahead of me into the darkness, forging the way into the uncertainty, welcoming me into the difficult questions- into the positive of embracing the mystery. A local pastor once said it this way.
“Everything passes and vanishes, everything leaves its trace. And often you see in a footstep what you could not see in a face.”
– Daren Redekop
It is no small thing that I find myself writing this during the season of Advent, as there is no greater expression of this mystery for me than the incarnation, the Christmas season, a time when God spoke definitively into our human story in a way the world did not expect.
A true hope for a world.