Questioning the Unquestioned Answers
"The unanswered questions aren't nearly as dangerous as the unquestioned answers."
This anonymous quote has rather become the background music for my life -- my life's theme, so to speak. I've always been the curious and questioning sort -- I was the "firstborn of two firstborns", and had the attention of a plethora of adults -- all of whom indulged my precocious self. I remember wearing them out at an early age, with my insatiable hunger to KNOW. And to know Truth, with a Capital "T".
I also clearly remember the profound sense of betrayal when I found out, for the first time, that I'd fallen prey to an elaborate ruse: my parents went to inordinate lengths to entice me to believe in the reality of Santa Clause ... we're talking phone calls from Santa, and flour "footprints" through the living room, and being rushed to an upstairs bedroom (being told that the plane lights passing by was his sleigh), and then hearing him on the roof, as my father walked across, hollering "ho-ho-ho." I bought it, hook, line and sinker. And why not? These were my parents, bastions of security, truth and integrity, no?
Now, I've long since forgiven them for the deception, having come to understand a parent's delight in playing make-believe with children, and certainly their motives weren't evil. But, I'll never forget the feeling, deep in my heart, when my 2nd grade best friend illuminated me about the mythology of the jolly old elf. The shock was palpable. My trust was shaken profoundly -- and that sinking, hot feeling of betrayal, of having been duped, would become a familiar one to me, much later in life.
I met Jesus during the heyday of the Jesus movement. It actually "gelled" for me while onstage during a production of "Godspell" -- when the crucifixion and resurrection scenes became real to me. I cried throughout the cast party ("it's ok, Dena, you can stop acting now, the show is over."). Unfortunately, that early, organic and simple relationship with Jesus got quickly transformed into "the show" for real, as the trappings of traditionalism, of institutionalism, and of the doctrines of man took over. The Way of Jesus became less of an organic walk, and more of an organized system. Somewhere along the way, I got caught up in the insidiousness of performance-based spirituality.
I married a guy who was "called" to go through seminary, who got ordained, and who then served in a church for 10 years. We had a slew of children (rounding out at 8 total), and became the proverbial family in a fishbowl, laden with expectations, trapped on the treadmill of "try harder, fail, cover up in shame; try harder, fail, cover up in shame" - ad nauseam.
We were told by those in charge (as we were second-tier), that they (church leadership) were our sanctuary, that they spoke into our lives on behalf of God, that we were not to question authority ("touch not God's anointed") - for that was tantamount to rebellion (this was what earned me the nickname of "Jezebel"), and that we must, as a group, be in agreement -- for submission = 100% agreement, on all points of doctrine and practice. Our very salvation, it was heavily hinted, depended upon it.
We were taught that we were among the few who held to all truth -- that others were deceived, by varying degrees. We were told that our group was among the elite in the Church -- that we were in the line of Apostolic Succession, and others were "church as usual." We were told that those who had left our group were "never really among us," and that they couldn't "go as deep and holy" as we did, and that as long as we submitted completely, and did not ask questions, we would be "safe."
In exchange for this security, we were to do as we were told -- it was likened to the military, in that we should know how to unquestioningly follow orders. Group-think prevailed. Those who defied were dealt with swiftly and harshly -- with direct confrontations, chastisements, withholding of benefits (removal from positions), public shamings, and, if all else failed, official shunning from the group. We were told to never contact those who had left, in shame. As if they were spiritually dangerous, or at the very least were contagious with spiritual cooties. We were given the "official" version of why they had left."
It was inevitable, that my curious nature, and profound hunger for truth, would get me into serious trouble. In fact, I was told that my rebellion (i.e., my questioning) was keeping my husband from advancing up the hierarchical ladder. I would often be pulled aside, and reamed about what a terrible wife, mother, and human being I was; I was told directly, after our 7th child, that we should be sterilized, so that we could have no more children. We defied them, not having peace about doing so -- and when I miscarried two times, they told me point blank, after the second miscarriage, that I had received what I deserved, since I had disobeyed, and they refused to grieve with me. That was the beginning of the end for me, and for our family.
God then healed me, in two areas of my life, rather miraculously, by replacing some lies I didn't even know I believed, with His truth, and I was set free. In that profoundly new place in my life, I gained strength, and saw that what they were doing to us was wrong. We were then catapulted out of that church, and, though we didn't yet realize it, out of institutional Christianity altogether.
God then led us through the wilderness ... we didn't attend any church regularly, as our eyes became open to how much of what went on there was of man, and not of God. We were led to read books on spiritual abuse (which, we discovered, is rampant in the Church), and then on grace (sounded too good to be true at first!), and then books on the emergent church (which got us thinking outside the box), and then, about how some folks had discovered the joy of assembling together organically -- without the structure of the institutional system.
There it was again -- that profoundly gripping sense of betrayal -- that sickening awareness that we'd been duped! I went through all the classic stages of grief - shock, anger, depression, more anger, incredulousness, and finally -- acceptance. We also walked down the painfully exposing pathway of learning to forgive those who had, either intentionally or inadvertently (ultimately known only to God), harmed us.
For the past two years, we've been given the incredible gift of being in "God-ordained relationships" with others -- both face to face and online. We live in community with another family (separate houses next-door, and shared lives), and are in close fellowship with others. We gather in both planned and spontaneous ways -- delving deeply with one another, in encouragement, in joy, in pain, and in challenging one another to see our various blind spots. We've come to experience Church as extended-family, devoid of the squelchedness of the institution. I cannot imagine going back.
I've come to the place where I no longer fear asking questions. I've lost a great deal of my former fear of man, of what others will think or do, due to my questions. I'm far more wary of the danger of swallowing whole what others attempt to spoon feed me. I no longer believe a thing is true, just because it's been repeated, over and over, by a succession of generations. Not even if repeated by people in "authoritative" positions. Not even if repeated convincingly. Not even if repeated so frequently that it "feels" true (for, isn't that the very definition of propaganda?).
I've come to believe that God not only will not strike me dead for questioning "everything," but that He welcomes my questions, with a generous, "come, let us reason together." I now believe that He created my mind to be part of wholistic worship, along with my heart, soul and strength. I now believe that He wants to shake my very foundations -- revealing what is of Him, and what is of man. I've come to believe that Truth is not so much a concept, but a Person - Jesus. And that He invites us to "follow" Him, on a journey for life... into abundant Life. Not to cling to some portion of doctrine, leave the path, and camp out in a parking lot, defending that doctrine against all scrutiny. I believe that I'm meant to hold my doctrines loosely -- as I see that I start with "seeing through glass dimly" and progress onward towards "All Truth" -- and that implies a journey of progressive Truth-unveiling. I believe that while deception must be maintained, truth can withstand all manner of scrutiny. If it's truth, it will stand; if it falls away, then it should.
I imagine that the feeling of "oh no, duped again" is going to remain a familiar one to me, in this life at least. I've come to see that there are all manner of teachings that have been skewed by man over the centuries -- and I've come to believe that Jesus wants us to come into His Truth, as we can. I believe He wants His Church back (for man has hijacked it). I believe He wants His reputation back (for man has besmirched it). I believe He wants us set free from all that would enslave us, including all that is less than His Truth.
May He continue to shake our foundations, and continue to reveal all of who He is to us -- and may we not camp out, clinging to what we think we know, but may we be willing to follow Him into the fullness of Who He is, and who He created us to be.
Shalom, Dena Brehm