“I’m struggling hardcore, missing Jesus,” That’s the text I sent to my buddy Michael, three days before Christmas.
I’ve had to sit with the uncomfortable truth that exists in this story for the past couple of months. “Saucer and blow it,” as my grandma would say. This post involves some deep soul work that most would likely hesitate to share. Plus, I know how nasty certain fundamental Christians can be when it comes to talk of deconstructing your faith.
In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “...human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” Even though this blog is my safe space, it’s difficult when you know there are some who prefer to lurk around the edges and throw stones rather than sit down for coffee.
As gracious as Michael’s response was, it still managed to piss me off, “It’s okay to like Jesus still. He didn’t do anything wrong to you.”
My reply? “No Michael. Like he's on the cross, dying. Or dead. Gone. Not coming back. It feels just like when my Grandpa died. Ugh. I think I’m grieving Jesus.”
My friend gently pushed back, “My grandma is gone too, but I can still like her. And remember the best parts. No shame in that. It’s okay to like the best parts of Jesus that led you to be caring. If it was real to you back then, why wouldn’t you mourn? Brains are funny. You don’t have to throw the 8lb 4oz baby out with the bath water. Don’t let your stubbornness get in the way of your process. Float in the river a bit and see where the water takes you.”
I have the very best friends.
In the middle of what felt like a faith crisis, I also sent a text to Brad (a former pastor), “Do people still ask you to pray for them?”
To Melody, I sent a confession, “I think Jesus is the best of God. The good side.”
And to Angie? “I know he’ll never come back. But I sure wish he could. Just for a moment. It’s a real grieving process.”
This is how I roll when the spool starts unraveling, and I realize, yet again, that I’m losing more of that childhood script. You know the script - the one they give you in Sunday School or youth group, that makes everything easy because it’s the same script everyone else receives. When it hits me that I don’t have a faith script any longer, it freaks me completely out, and I need my friends to remind me that in the middle of my uncertainty, I’m not losing my mind.
Brad reminded me that I’m still “Pastor Steve” to most people, and I always will be. He even said something crazy like, “You can still be people’s pastor, even if you don’t believe in God.” (It’s true. Read my friend Brandon’s book, if you don’t believe me.)
To be fair, I’m not grieving Jesus; he isn’t gone or missing. It’s the simplicity of my childhood faith that I miss the most. Christmas to Easter, the centrality of my faith was summed up in one miraculous dude I read about in the Gospels and saw on felt boards every Summer at Vacation Bible School. More than anything, I’m grieving the certainty of my childhood faith.
Brad agreed. “Everything was black and white. It was easy to see the boundaries. There’s comfort in that. The problem is that the only way to grow is to leave the village, so to speak. When you leave the village, you leave behind everything that makes sense and gives your life meaning. That’s hard. What you’re feeling is totally normal.”
What I’m feeling is totally normal. I say it to myself again and again. I really don’t know what I’d do without my friends who are willing to check their judgment at the door and love me by listening.
Later that day, I was giving blood. The technician had interacted with me for less than three minutes, when she asked, "Are you a pastor?"
I smirked. Then I laughed and shook my head. "Seriously?!" I asked. It had been a while since I'd been asked; it used to be much more frequent.
"Are you a worship leader?" They'd ask.
"You must be a youth pastor." It happened all the time.
Is it the spikey hair? The incessant Dad jokes? I don't know exactly, but she said, "You're all pretty easy to spot."
When I responded, "Not anymore," she paused from prepping my arm and said, "Now, there's a story waiting to be told."
I asked her how much time she had, and she looked down at my chart before looking back up and said, "As long as it takes, Pastor - er - I mean Mr. Austin."
I laughed a bit more and said, "This one typically takes a while; there are a lot of gory details."
"Yea," she said, "I gathered that with the whole 'not anymore' bit."
So we talked about Pentecostal Jesus and how he was supposed to fix everything, until he didn't. We talked about how brains can break. Even pastor's brains. We spoke of ICU and the psych ward and getting fired and rethinking literally everything.
"Quick pinch," she said.
"You've lived through worse than that tiny bee sting, Mister," she said with a crooked little grin.
"So what's the rest of the story? There has to be more to a story like this one."
I drew a deep breath, and said, "Well, I'm not so sure anymore."
"So what do you believe?"
"To be honest, I'm still a huge fan of that Jesus guy I read about. The one who was really kind and gracious and generous. The one who called out religious people on their bullshit. I think he would have been the coolest guy to have a drink with, or just sit and not say much of anything. I'm not sure if Jesus was God, but he's the closest thing I've ever found to the kind of example I'd like to follow."
"So you're an Agnostic, just like me," she said, holding her head up high.
"See, Tina?" she yelled to the other technician at the front of the LifeSouth bus, "we're not all hell raisers and crazies! This guy's a pastor!"
I cleared my throat, "Was a pastor."
"There's plenty of us Agnostics who still need a pastor. Some of us even like Jesus - sounds like you do, too. And if you ask me, you still sound an awful lot like a pastor."
Hm. I guess Brad was right.
I got off the bus and had a text from Angie, “At times like this it can be beneficial to focus on the things Jesus represented and find those within humanity, within a larger view of God, or within the Universe. Love, humor, goodness: these are the things I'm hearing you loved about Jesus and things I see echoed all around us.”
So many spend their time trying to make the Unknowable knowable, trying to turn the Great Big into bite-sized pieces; yet, I see Jesus doing something a little different: he talks about how this Great Big God actually cares for the tiny sparrow. And how with just the smallest thing (i.e., a seed), we can connect with the greater whole. Jesus reminds us that the ordinary, small, and often overlooked things (and people) are actually the key to the whole Universe. With just a seed or a sparrow, we can tap into something much larger than ourselves.
And why is that? Because everything is sacred. Because everything is a smaller part of a greater whole. Because there’s plenty we don’t know, and as we learn to stop focusing on all the things that we may never figure out, there’s a whole world of beauty in trusting, embracing love, and connecting with those around us.
Stepping away from the Christian Machine left me reeling for a while. Shredding that childhood script was scary as hell, but in slowing down and prioritizing what matters, I'm finding meaning all around me: in cuddles and deep conversation with my wife, the wonder in my daughter's eyes, the joy on my son's face, and the mystery of a magenta sunset.
If you still find comfort and meaning inside the pews and surrounded by songs at a candlelight service, thank heavens for that - it's a beautiful thing. But if you’re currently finding meaning outside the walls of man-made religion, you can be grateful for that, too.
So this journey is about disconnecting from the Christian Machine and reconnecting with the Christ who is deeper and wider than even the God of Jesus. It’s about death and resurrection. (It’s always about death and resurrection.) It’s about something Universal - something with the power to connect us all, even if it blows our minds and shatters our certainty in the process. In leaving the faith of my childhood, I’m rediscovering childlike faith.
What about you?
Are you still finding faith inside the church? Have you left the childhood script behind for something different? What does spirituality look like for you these days? I'd love to read your story in the comments below.