How A Single Question Turned My Faith Around

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By Michelle DeRusha | Twitter: @MichelleDeRusha

M_Michelle-2The necklace—a choker with a velvet strap and a single brilliant faux sapphire—sat within reach, right at the edge of the open desk.

I wanted that necklace; I had to have it, the desire for it so strong, it made my stomach clench. So while my third grade teacher bent low over my classmate’s shoulder, I quickly reached behind their backs, slid my fingers into the open desk and then slipped the velvet strand into the front pocket of my corduroys.

Regret rushed in almost instantly as the thrilling high of holding the treasure in my hand crashed into gut-wrenching fear. Stealing, I knew, was a ticket straight to hell. I’d broken one of the Ten Commandments, had committed a mortal sin, and there was only one way out of the hell fires for which I was bound: confession.

My mother dragged my sister and I to confession once a month on Saturday mornings. I had ample opportunity to confess the sin to the priest who sat hunched behind the frosted glass window, yet I failed each time.

I was afraid to admit my sin out loud. Worse, I was terrified the priest would demand I tell my parents about the theft and insist I return the necklace to its rightful owner. I chose to save face over saving my soul.

That stolen necklace was the beginning of the end of faith for me, although it took me years to admit to myself that I had deep doubts about God. Instead, I simply pretended to believe.

Every Sunday morning in church I coughed at the beginning of the “Nicene Creed” to avoid declaring, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty.” It was that easy. Avoiding a single line allowed me to skirt the truth.

The truth was, I didn’t believe in God. I was an impostor. Through most of my childhood and young adulthood I simply went through the motions of faith.

I attended church, went to confession once a month, was enrolled in catechism classes–I was even married in a church. But here’s the clincher: I didn’t admit to myself that I had doubts all those years.

I was so good at faking, I tricked myself into a pretend belief. I was too afraid of the alternative: declaring myself an atheist. In my mind atheists were troublemakers, and as the oldest daughter of an Army drill sergeant, I defined myself as the quintessential good girl, certainly not a troublemaker.

Fast forward to a blisteringly hot day in July 2001 when I found myself unloading a U-Haul in suburban Lincoln, Nebraska. My husband had accepted a position as an English professor at a small liberal arts college, so we’d packed our hand-me-down double bed and my grandparents’ dining room set and moved 1,500 miles from Massachusetts to the Great Plains.

In a matter of weeks, everything that had previously defined me—my family, my home, my career, my people—was gone. It had all been replaced by a colicky infant (I gave birth to our first child less than a month after moving), grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens and acquaintances who chummily chatted about God like he was the PTO president of the local elementary school.

I was lonely and afraid, struggling to find my place and figure out my new role as a Nebraskan and as a mother.

Is this it? I wondered. Is this my life? Is this what I’m supposed to be?

I hadn’t the foggiest idea who I was, how I should define myself or where I was going. It was a classic mid-life crisis—although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. As Dante so succinctly put it, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”

I was lost in the dark wood of the Great Plains.

Frankly, this would have been the opportune moment for a lightning-strike conversion, but what I got instead was, as John Wesley described it, “a heart strangely warmed.”

Since we’d moved to Nebraska, my husband and I had sporadically attended a Lutheran church in town, and as I sat in the last pew a Sunday here and a Sunday there, I began to hear an unfamiliar message.

Gone were the frequent reminders about sin and punishment I’d heard so regularly in my childhood church. Instead, week after week, the liturgy and sermon focused on a single message: Jesus’ love and grace.

Maybe it was the two years of erratic church attendance and the constant repetition of the “love and grace” message that finally began to turn my heart.

Maybe it was the weekly conversations with the therapist I’d been seeing for months.

Maybe it was the fact that during a one-on-one conversation, a pastor had offered compassion, empathy and hope to me when I’d admitted to him that I was afraid I didn’t believe in God.

I can’t point to a single dramatic catalyst that prompted my heart to begin to warm to the possibility of belief. All I know is that it began, not long after the meeting with my pastor, with one simple question: why not?

Over a period of months I began to turn a new question around in my mind. I simply asked myself, “Why not?”

Why not? Why can’t God exist? Why can’t Jesus have been the Savior sent to save us, sent to save me? Why not?

For many years I hadn’t allowed myself to think about belief or unbelief at all. Later, when I’d finally admitted and accepted my lack of faith, I was never willing to suspend my unbelief, even for a moment, to see what it felt like.

When I finally did–when I cracked the window open just enough to ask that small question, “Why not?” – it felt, as C.S. Lewis once said, as if I were loosening a stiff corset or unbuckling a suit of armour.

Asking “Why not?” wasn’t a dramatic, instantaneous conversion. But it was enough to loosen a single button on the cinched corset, to unclasp a single buckle on the impenetrable suit of armour.

I’d always assumed my faith would “begin” when I felt a certain way and acted a certain way. Asking “Why not?” was my way of accepting that the single, perfect moment—the moment when all my questions would finally be answered once and for all, was never going to happen.

My story doesn’t have a tidy ending. Questioning, I’ve come to understand, is part of who I am; skepticism is woven into my fabric. But over the last few years I have shifted my approach. Instead of trying to wrangle a definitive answer out of my questions, I’ve learned, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised, to live with and in the questions.

“Live the questions now,” Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet. “Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”

I still seek, but I don’t always seek the hard-and-fast answer anymore. Instead, I live the questions, I keep asking, “Why not?” and I trust that I will live into God’s answers.

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About Michelle:

MichelleDeRushaatLaityLodgeA Massachusetts native, Michelle DeRusha moved to Nebraska in 2001, where she discovered the Great Plains, grasshoppers the size of Cornish hens … and God. Michelle writes about finding and keeping faith in the everyday at michellederusha.com, as well as a monthly column for the Lincoln Journal Star. She’s mom to two bug-loving boys, Noah and Rowan, and is married to Brad, an English professor who reads Moby Dick for fun. Her first book, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith, was published in April. She is also working on a second book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith, which will be released in September 2014.

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