God is Love
I am not a religious person. I have in the past been offensively non-religious. I sent out big fuck-you’s to all the folks that believed in what I found to be false and senseless. I arrived at that point through years of various experiences with the church and extremely religious people.
Here are a few of the good ones:
1. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing, what pain she is causing,” my dad would say to the congregation as he asked them to pray for me. I would sit in the pew and hate myself and him and God and every person in that church that let him say those things.
2. Once, I was dating a boy who didn’t put in the effort to keep me. I was young and impressionable and wanting attention and I cheated on him. His mother, who months before had made me a prayer shawl; called my sad flip phone and I heard the filthy word come out of her mouth across the line, WHORE. I cried on the other end, repeating “I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry.” She cried too, her voice was shrill and unforgiving. I hated myself then too.
3. Working my way through college as a server, I would work long hours on the days I didn’t have class to make ends meet. I would leave smelling like steak and ranch dressing; jello-legged, and demoralized. Sundays were one of those days. The church rush. More times than I could begin to count; I would give great service, I would say please and thank you, I would go above and beyond, and when I opened the check book at the end, the tip line would read something to this effect: “Your Faith and Savior.” And there would be some sort of pamphlet to accompany this gesture.
These things led me to a place of mean-spirited goading. Please. I would think. Please fucking say it, please say something to me about my tattoo or my t-shirt or my curse words or my live-in boyfriend, SAY IT. I wanted the fight. I was angry.
And before you get too excited, this is not a coming-to-jesus story. It is a hippie-dippy story, but Jesus ain’t here, not for me, at least not how most folks think of him.
So, I was angry and hurt and I judged because I had been judged. As time went on, I let that live-in boyfriend go. I stopped wearing the shirts that made me worry if a child might see them; naked girls and the words FUCK in gigantic bold print on the back. I stopped wearing my tattoo like some kind of badge of disdain. It’s a flower. It isn’t offensive, it isn’t scary. It is a flower. And slowly, very slowly, I started to find people in my adult life that proved me wrong. They were Christian or Jewish or Catholic or Mennonite or Muslim; and they weren’t awful. They were actually great pictures of humanity. That is what this story is about. Humanity and love and God, whatever all of that means.
The Ones Who Do It Right
There are lots of folks now who have helped to show me that religious does not equal evil. Sam’s momma Colene, whose love cannot be contained. She is Methodist and goes to her little church every Sunday. My Aunt Mariah, a tough, badass lady who works hard and raises her kids and is a great wife to a great husband. Our family friend Gisela, who, every day it seemed, my freshmen year of college sent me note cards full of tiny, handwritten bible verses and prayers.
And then there is my sweet, dad-joke-making friend Ally. She is a babe. She gave me one of the most impactful gifts I have ever received. She was on a year-long mission when my mom passed away. When she returned, she gave me a small hand-made book from Nepal. It was filled with quotes, some of them were Bible verses, some of them were from other books, some were from people on the mission with her, and some of them were her very own. That little book made me cry, it made me weep. All of the quotes inside felt like pieces of tape holding my poor broken heart together while it healed. This girl who’d been all over the world, she had helped the refugees in Syria, had seen incredible poverty, had born witness to things I can’t even fathom, brought me back a book of heartbreak tape.
Really, this piece is a story about Ally.
Ally said the same prayers I did as a kid. God is great, God is good. It was meaningless to her, like it was to me. Hollow childhood prayers. She went to church every Sunday but didn’t have a relationship with God. Her family moved around a lot. Each place, they would try out several spots before settling on the one they would attend. Church was something Ally saw as an errand, something they had to get done.
In high school, Ally’s family moved to Morgantown. She saw this as a place where she could be a whole new person. And like so many teens before her, she rebelled, she had all the usual adolescent temptations and sins. She got in with some rowdy kids, not bad, but rowdy.
In college, she brought that lifestyle with her. Partying. Drinking. She was dating a boy who was emotionally abusive, mean. A friend invited her to get involved with the campus ministry and she went, more of the obligation to God at first. More hollow prayers. But one night, she was leaving the ministry, going back to this boy who wasn’t kind to her, and thought, there is something I am missing in this life. And the people at this ministry seem to have it. How do I find that?
Finally, one night, the guy who wasn’t kind pressured Ally and she refused. She refused him and then she lay on the floor and cried. She prayed to God to help her find the missing something. She threw herself into service at the campus ministry but faced immense shame and guilt, wrapped up in all the moments of imperfection. Human moments. She felt shame for her parents, for herself, for people she may have hurt. And from that humble, human place, praying became a want-to, not a have-to for Ally. She began walking in the way of fullness of life, kindness, and graciousness.
I only first started to get close with Ally when she left for her mission. I had known several people that had done missions in the past, but Ally’s seemed different to me somehow. I was excited for her. I got to watch her make the choice to go. I got to have talks with her ahead of the journey. I got to learn what her reasons were. Here are a few:
1. Ally is an adventure junkie. What is a bigger adventure than going around the world?
2. Ally had this deep feeling in her heart. Not a gut feeling but more up in her chest. A heart feeling.
3. Ally’s life had been pretty vanilla up to that point. She lived in America in a middle-class family and wanted to be shocked. She wanted to feel the raw humanity of a trip around the world.
4. Finally. She wanted to know and experience this god that people talk about when they are in the depths of despair. She wanted new ways of knowing who God was. “To be honest, I want to see miracles,” she said.
So, Ally went away, wanting to see miracles and wanting to be shocked and wanting an adventure.
Time went by, my world crumbled as I knew it. My mom was gone. And out of the abyss of some country, Ally sent me a message. In her message she said all kinds of sweet things but the fact that she sent it in the first place meant so much to me. I don’t even know what country she was in, but she sent me her heart from so far away, from the other side of the world. And that was what I needed, I needed people sending me their hearts from the other side of the world, and there she was.
I fell deep into my own pain after the immediate attention of death waned. I couldn’t see past myself. I wallowed. And then one day, my phone buzzed and it was Ally. She was home and wanted to see me. We met for coffee. I was so excited to see her. I thought, this girl is going to know what I need as I sat across from her, coffees and scones dividing us. She asked about my mom and she asked about my life. And I answered her, but I wanted to know about her trip. I wanted away from my pain. I asked her big questions she didn’t know the answers to yet. As we spoke, I started to realize we were both reeling from humungous trials, we were both in transition, we were both 20-somethings with a lot to work out. I let my questions go for a long time. If I didn’t have answers about my life, how could I ask others to have answers about theirs. So I waited, I waited about a year and a half, I waited until about two weeks ago and I asked Ally if I could interview her for this piece. And she said yes, because she is wonderful and humble and incredible. Here are some of the questions I asked, and some of her perfectly eloquent and philosophical answers:
1. What did you sacrifice to go on your year-long mission?
She said time. Time with family. Time with friends. Time preparing for a successful life. She said she had to abandon pride. She had to sacrifice her idea of who she was. No longer could her identity be determined by being a rock climber or microbiologist or sister or any of those roles that come with whatever assumptions people make. She was just Ally. And she became a part of this group of people she was on her mission with. She said she had to sacrifice the rules of God. So many different people around the world believed in God. She said God is so much more about your heart than the bible and church. God heals people. Brings together communities. God works in brothels. God became this big expansive thing Ally couldn’t understand. “God, if you’re in brothels, that’s where I want to be.” She said to me. I repeat, she said, GOD IF YOU’RE IN BROTHELS, THAT’S WHERE I WANT TO BE.
2. What of your expectations had been confirmed and dashed?
“I thought I would come out of this as a crazy, awesome Christian who had no questions who was on fire for the lord and make this radical change in Morgantown. Nope. A little more mundane. God is in the little things, but I wanted him to be in the big things. I thought I would heal but I came back more broken and ok with that brokenness. I expected community and that my fellow missionaries would be kind and encouraging and love Jesus too. But people are people and they were mean sometimes and I was mean sometimes. I would start to get lost in petty arguments and then we would travel to the slums and I would realize there is so much more I can consume myself with. There are people who need me more than I need to pay attention to this small fight. There are people who need me to love them in this big brokenness that they have.”
3. What are the biggest ways your service changed your life?
This is what she said. “I’m more aware. Aware of the depths of humans and the depths of God. I think God meets us in our depths and the pits of our brokenness. I think I had done a lot of my life walking on the surface.” I’m going to repeat that one again too. She said, I THINK GOD MEETS US IN OUR DEPTHS AND THE PITS OF OUR BROKENNESS. I THINK I HAD DONE A LOT OF MY LIFE WALKING ON THE SURFACE. She continues, “It changed my faith completely. Absolutely completely. There are so many people who tell me that I am not what they expect out of a Christian. I think there is some fundamental thing that we miss out on if we start focusing on the rules. We are free people. I don’t have to go to church every Sunday at 9 a.m. for God to love me. I just have to love him and be open.”
4. You are one of the kindest, most thoughtful, empathetic, sweet, sincere humans I know. Anyone who knows you sees it. This is not an exaggeration. I admire this in you. I strive to be more like you and I wonder, where do you pull your strength, vulnerability, and earnestness from?
She said, “My own love and kindness flows out of me, but there are a lot of cruel things that I think and want to do. It isn’t something I need to access. I humble myself, so God can be bigger through me. My role is just to let it happen. I am so not perfect, and I am so broken. And I also remember all the time that we are all people. Nothing in me is not in other people.” This one too. Ally said, NOTHING IN ME IS NOT IN OTHER PEOPLE. She finishes, “When I found the lord again, I was consumed with this love for other people that I couldn’t put a finger on. I COULDN’T HELP but love people.”
God is Love
When Ally left, I didn’t know I would go through the biggest trial of my life. Unlike Ally, I didn’t invite the trial. Mine just showed up one sunshiny, warm Saturday in September. The blue sky was above me and the green grass was below me and then nothing was anywhere. Then there was not gravity or the earth or buildings or roads. Then I was just flowing freely in the atmosphere and the only thing I can remember well when I think back to those moments are people’s voices and embraces. I remember running across the hospital parking lot to my brother and holding him so tightly that if we could just squeeze tight enough, she would be back here with us. I remember sitting on the porch the next morning, the air was very cold but it couldn’t touch me, and feeling like my mom was standing behind me with her hands on my shoulders, feeling like she hadn’t left me yet. I remember moments of not wanting to exist anymore but in each moment, someone would call or message or show up or give me something to look forward to. I remember deep apathy, but it would always be interrupted by some person sending some signal of love my direction.
I was drug out of the deepest darkness I have ever known by love. I thought I would always feel the sustained intensity of that loss. I thought I would wake every day and feel alone and misplaced without her. I thought I would dedicate every single day of my life to the memory of her. I thought a lot of things that aren’t true. I became callous for a time. I did not feel the pain and experiences of others were worthy. I thought, “How could you complain about that to me? Why does that even upset you?” I traveled a lot. I hustled. I worked and focused and did what needed done.
Then, I closed my mom’s estate and I went on a trip by myself to the desert. I knew I would grow and I did. The trip didn’t go as planned. Nothing ever does. After several exhausting days I ended up in this little place called Salvation Mountain. The mountain was a hill really, it was made of adobe and straw and covered in paint, breathtaking. The paint showed flowers and hearts and wild stripes of color. On the front of the mountain the word LOVE was spelled out in huge letters. I stood in the middle of this ginormous shrine to Jesus, looking up at the crisscrossing tree branches. I listened to young people walk around me and talk about what a strange place it was. All over the place there were the repeated words, “God is Love.” And in that moment, I felt utterly overwhelmed and overcome by love and gratitude and hope.
I felt these things because I realized this new understanding is what I had gained from my trip and my year and my great trial. Love absolutely rules above all things. I don’t know that God is what any great religion has made him out to be. I don’t know that God is anything really. But I do know this, love pulled me from the darkness. And whatever it is that can do that, in my book, counts as God. God is the great code of humanity. God is boldness and humbleness and openness. God is listening with intent to understand, not to reply. God is remembering that for some, one mile can be farther to walk than thirty. God is knowing that if equal affection cannot be, we should be the more loving one. God is knowing you can’t have intimacy without humility. God is knowing that darkness has no power in the light. God is having curiosity and wonder in all things, even things as plain as the grass. God is having a grand passion to love and to serve until one’s last breath. God is knowing that our scars hold the treasure of our being. For it is in these moments of hurt that we learn the most. And what I have learned is that LOVE wins every time. There will never be a moment you regret having loved. There will never be a moment you regret being warm and kind and listening. There will never be a moment you regret complimenting or including someone.
GOD IS LOVE. LOVE IS GOD. Whatever any of that means.