August 4, 2023
This one was tough. I originally wrote a pretty antiseptic description of the issue, then realized what a gut wrenching, soul sucking struggle this has been for me. My 20s were spent in a lonely search for a father figure—I learned to love my dad, but he could never be the nurturing presence I needed. At his funeral, I sobbed because there was no longer any hope for resolution of the tangled mess he’d left behind. I loved Mom. She had her own struggles, but her love and encouragement gave me the ability to have any deep relationships, even if they were few and far between. Losing her was awful.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that seeing God as Father (or Mother) hasn’t been easy or wholly positive for me. I’ve struggled all my life to feel anything about God other than fear, and that has changed only in the last several years. I wanted a dad more than anything, and I’m still looking.
For all my rants about the intellectual difficulties I have with Evangelicalism, those mostly just piss me off. My struggles with the experiential side of my faith are what really hurt. I understand, no, I know in my bones why my dad pursued Pentecostalism when I was a kid—the deep longing for a tangible experience of God. When we are hurting, all theology and rhetoric become meaningless, and all we want is an assurance that there is Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves and loves us with a white hot passion. Someone who holds us firmly in their arms and guards us from any fool who would do us harm. We want a mother and a father and a faithful friend whose tenderness dries all our tears and whose power shakes the foundations of the earth. We are the motherless child crying out in our loneliness and pain for someone to comfort us.
And all I hear is utter silence.
Where is the loving God we learned about in Sunday school? The one who is with us everywhere and in every trial? Why is it that we can see our breath more easily than the omnipotent and immanent God of the universe? How can I know that God is there? I want to trust my own experience, but I haven’t had any encounters with the divine, or what I thought were, in decades, and the ones I have had all have materialistic explanations. All the ecstatic experiences people describe can be accounted for by hormones and neurotransmitters. Sure, the same can be said for any human emotion—so how can I know these are genuine experiences and not just biology? Since I no longer believe in the inerrancy of scripture or trust the authority of the church that raised me, how can I know anything about God, much less know God?
Even so, I’m not coming to the question primarily as a skeptic but simply as one who has a hard time with feeling close to anyone or anything. I’ve never been much of a joiner and have always struggled with feeling a part of a group. I was bullied and isolated as a kid and a nerd in a small class of jocks and jock wannabes. Dad tried, but he had a pretty stunted emotional vocabulary—I learned to love and accept him as an adult, but our discussions stayed, for the most part, at a surface level. I was closer to Mom, and she is probably why I have managed to form any healthy relationships. My few romances were brief, intense, disorienting, and mostly nonexistent—I miserably pined for lost romances far longer than I was in any. My best relationships were with a few close friends, but then life would happen, they would move away, and even those would fade. I spent a lot of time as a lonely young man.
I’m left with a philosophical conviction of the existence of God but no real idea how to have a relationship with that God. If I’m going to spend eternity with this dude, I’d like to have a clue. Talking to God is mostly a rational, verbal affair for me. Talking with God is a dim hope. I’ve tried various forms of contemplative practice but found only the noise of my own brain—centering prayer with mostly chaos and not so much centering. The one bright spot is that I’ve learned I’m not alone—contemplative practice takes work and it takes time to learn to quiet the inner voices that rage back and forth. Heck, it takes time to learn to quiet the inner voices wondering what’s for dinner so I can focus on writing. I have a long way to go before I can feel I’m communing with God.