Part 1 covered childhood and middle school, when I learned and took ownership of my faith. Part 2 covered high school and college, when I began to question faith, but then held on to belief in God in the hopes that a different Christian tradition could help me get closer to God and understand the faith better.
In high school, I went through a more “rebellious” period of non-faith, and claimed not to be a Christian for a while. In college, I reclaimed my Christian identity. I had unanswered questions about faith, but I didn’t explore them much in college. During that time, my growth overall as an adult was stunted by a bad relationship.
I thought I had posted more in this blog about my former view of relationships (I guess I posted a little here about it), but now I’m realizing I haven’t discussed it as much as I thought. I had some very unhealthy ideas about what a marriage was supposed to look like, including the key idea that you could continually give to your spouse, and God would keep you emotionally satisfied in your marriage.
I tried to be everything for my ex-husband. In doing so, I learned that I am human and need to have my needs addressed in a marriage, too.
It wasn’t that my ex-husband was a bad person, but he wasn’t the right person for me. I think I carried an idea too far: in Evangelical Christianity, as I mentioned before, the stated message isn’t that you need to believe and act the Right Way, but that is the actual message sent. I remember being confused about the Catholics across the street when I was young because I didn’t really know whether or not they were saved: they are Christians, right? But they believe and do a lot of Wrong Things, so where does that really put them in Jesus’ mind? The point is that I believed I had to believe and act a way that went against my natural instincts, and try to change my thoughts to be pleasing to God, and make sure my emotions were what God wanted me to be feeling… in other words, I tried to make myself be the person I thought God wanted me to be, and this carried over into trying to make myself be the wife I thought my ex-husband wanted me to be (as opposed to who I actually am). And it was destroying me.
Going more into that relationship will have to wait for another time, and I could probably write multiple blog posts about what happened to undo my first marriage and why I stayed in that relationship so long in the first place. For now I’m going to try to focus just on how it impacted my faith.
I had trusted that God would make my marriage work if I had enough faith. But he didn’t.
Things went horribly wrong and I ended up in bed with another man.
Something I never thought I would do would be to cheat on a person. I was incredibly morally opposed to this and thought that you had to be selfish, cruel, and wrong to cheat. Yet there I was, and it started an emotional crisis.
I met a friend in grad school who taught me many things about emotional health and growth. She was one of the people I talked to the most to help me understand what I was going through and help me decide what to do about my failing marriage. During this time, she listened, supported, and loved me in a way that helped me begin to embrace my humanity and understand that emotions are not something to be fought, but something to be understood and listened to.
My muslim friend, my best friend from high school, helped me work through so much, and I knew she would support me in whatever I chose – to stay in my marriage or to get a divorce. I told her everything. She listened and talked to me with compassion and truth.
In the middle of this time, months of debating about whether to stay or go, I got a call from my best friend’s cousin. My muslim best friend had been in a car accident on the interstate. She didn’t make it.
I thought I had been in an emotional crisis, but the grief I began to experience after hearing that news was an entirely new level of crisis.
I was more lost and alone than I had ever been, and it can still be very difficult for me to describe or think about what happened in my life after these events. I dealt with grief in the way I knew best:
Earnestly, fervently, without reservation or doubt, I prayed.
I attributed moments of lessening of the pain to God’s peace. I prayed for guidance, for healing, for understanding of the tragedies that happened in my life. I basked in God’s presence, sobbing or collapsed on the floor. I’m not certain I had ever been so sure about my belief, and those moments stand out in my mind as some of the most positive faith-experiences I had.
My friend’s funeral was held shortly after her death. There is a cleansing ceremony that muslims perform for dead bodies before the burial and it requires that a body be buried quickly. There was a service at her mosque and a short grave-side ceremony involving throwing dirt into the coffin, and her body was laid in the ground facing mecca. Women were not allowed near the gravesite without a man, so I stood at the edge of the lawn with other women I loved and respected, and some I barely knew, all facing the grave with one purpose.
But there is a tradition in her culture that the family’s house is open for 3 days after the funeral for mourning. So I went. I cried and laughed and we tried to find some comfort in those moments, some sense about what had happened, some silver lining. Her mom said, “It helps, I think, to believe in God.” She gave me a head scarf and a copy of the Quran and said I was always welcome at their home. We prayed together – all the women in the house, the men outside – traditional prayers in arabic that those of us present who were non-muslims were kindly allowed to participate in. I was told that dreams about her were glimpses into the state of her soul, and my dreams were confirmation that she was in heaven.
This was the last and best chance for faith for me. Maybe a new faith that combined all the things I had learned that Christianity could be about in my adult life – openness, acceptance, love. God as a friend and healer, not a judge and dictator. God could be someone who understands, and maybe my friend was in some level of heaven with Him, just like how everyone else would be when we die. Maybe I could have a faith that transcends religious traditions and believe in the one God that my friend, so long ago, had claimed we both believed in.
I’m not ready to go into the details of my life after her funeral, during the sharpest experience of grief for her. In short, I decided to get a divorce and lived with my friend from grad school. I continued on in my graduate program despite my emotional crises, holding on to it as one area in my life that I felt kept me sane. I had several messy relationships and made so many bad decisions as a result of my grief over my divorce and my friend.
Life did become calmer, and I somehow began to heal, and then I met another person who changed my life the spring after my friend passed away. I’ll have to talk about it more in part 4, since this section was longer than I expected!