We are late to church and sneak along the outer edge of the sanctuary, the pine floors creaking under our careful steps. I slide into the pew next to my husband. My leg brushes against him, this man I love, a man who recently lost faith in God. I scan the bulletin and try to find my place. My eyes blur through liturgy and confessions and Psalms.
I sing the hymn. Though the congregation’s voices surround us, all I hear is my husband’s doubt breathing beside me. My singing sounds singular in my ears. The lyrics don’t connect; they belong to a different universe and era, but I sing them anyway. My husband stands, mouth closed, arms crossed.
I see every obscure scripture, every archaic liturgy, and every churchly annoyance through his eyes. It’s hardly a worshipful state; I don’t sense God’s presence. I wonder if this church production—the standing and the sitting—is all theater, a pageant. I wonder if my husband is the only sane one here, watching us all act our parts in this play for a God who may not even exist.
A dear friend is preaching this Sunday and, though my husband has recently declared Christianity a destructive force in the world, he loves our friend and supports her. And so we’re here together today, side by side. Like we have been for so many years, in so many churches, stretching back ten years to when we attended chapel services three times a week in college.
The sermon is on the road to Emmaus, and our talented friend tells a quirky and animated rendition of the timeless story. The disciples walk along the dusty road, despondent and disillusioned by Jesus’s crucifixion, unaware that the stranger who travels with them is the resurrected Lord. She speaks about recognition, noticing God in unexpected places, encountering the holy. Then she tells a story about a breakup she went through at age nineteen. A relationship ended in a sour, severing conversation. When she drove down the highway after leaving her boyfriend for the last time, she spotted a vineyard at the side of the road. She pulled over and stepped out of her car. It was early spring, the branches bare and grass wet from recently melted snow. As she walked through the groves, she talked with God, offering him the wringing pieces of her heart. She pleaded for his presence, for his acknowledgment. Then, she felt eyes on her back. She stopped and turned: a deer was watching her. It was only thirty feet away. The deer was still, a perfect statue, eyes brown and liquid. She held her breath, matching its steady gaze. And in that moment, she recognized God. His presence filled her and she knew God was answering her prayer. A strange burning filled her heart, and she understood that the God of the universe saw her and sought to comfort her.
I try to avoid it, but I can’t escape the thought fluttering from the rafters: but what if it was just a deer?
I join the congregation in the words of the Great Thanksgiving: The Lord be with you. And also with you. We lift up our hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. When I was in college I would physically lift my hands during this liturgy, scooping up my imaginary heart in cupped hands, as though handing off my very soul to God. Today I voice the words, my heart low and cold in my chest.
After the priest shares the story of the bread and cup, rows are released one at a time to come forward for communion. I join others filtering out of the pew to the center aisle and stand behind parishioners I have never met: a man continually clearing his throat, a woman with flame-streaked hair and gray roots. I watch them. One by one they rip off squishy bits of bread and dip it into the wine. I wonder at the mysterious body I am part of: these strangers belong—the man with the cough and the woman with the dye job—they are in communion. They are partaking of the body of Christ. Yet the man I made vows with before God, the partner who brings me coffee in the morning and whose smile lines make me think of stars, the husband who I joined with as one flesh—he sits in the pew behind me. On the outside.
I tear a piece of bread from the loaf and dip it in the chalice, avoiding eye contact with the celebrants as they mumble: the body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you. I eat the yeasty bread, soggy and purple. I am distracted.
After I slip back into the pew, my husband puts his arm around my shoulders. I lean into his side, comforted by the warmth of his body. While the priest speaks words of grace given in the absolution, I watch them flapping past like birds in the sky.
On a recent Sunday my husband dropped me off at church, the Mennonite congregation we have been attending for the past four years. As our two-year-old daughter squawked in the backseat, I noticed a cardboard box by my feet.
“What are these?” I asked, pushing the box with my toes.
“Oh, I’m taking those to Magers and Quinn,” he said, referring to our favorite Minneapolis used bookstore. “I am going to sell them.”
I leaned over and flipped through a few titles: The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth, Colossians Remixed by Brian Walsh. He was getting rid of books we once read together in college, books that once encouraged and challenged and inspired us both in a life with Christ.
“You’re going to sell all of these?” I asked. My husband glanced over at me, his eyes surprised at the emotion in my voice.
“Yes,” he said, cautiously. “I don’t believe in that stuff anymore.”
The finality of it hit me. He wasn’t leaving them on the shelf to gather dust, as I have done. No, he was creating new space on the shelf. He was moving on.
I met my Josh the fall of junior year because I saw a Sudanese refugee wandering in town. The middle-aged woman was walking along the curb near the Scripture Press soccer fields, her legs wrapped in a brightly colored kanga cloth. The aqua blues and magentas of her skirt made her stand out like a vibrant bird among the brown Midwestern prairie sparrows that darted through the boulevard trees overhead. She wore pink plastic flip-flops in the chilly October air. She was a striking vision in white-bread Wheaton, the wealthy Chicago suburb that was home to more Republicans and churches per square foot than any other county in the nation.
My curiosity about this woman lingered for days after I saw her. I fancied myself someone who cared about social justice, who cared about Africa, who wanted to bring God’s jubilee to places where poverty choked and war destroyed. After all, I studied African politics and attended World Christian Fellowship and read books about conflicts in Sudan and Rwanda in my spare time. I wondered what her story was; I wondered at the stream of events and decisions that had landed her on the curb of the Scripture Press soccer fields in Wheaton, Illinois.
I wanted to know more, so I made refugees the focus of the special features section I edited for the school paper. And when I first saw my future husband standing on stage during our required school-wide chapel service, I knew I’d found a college student to interview for my story. A gigantic beard covered his face and he wore a patchwork Bolivian hoodie, an adorable missionary-kid-turned-hippy. He stood beside his friend Matt who was announcing a week of fasting and prayer for the genocide in Darfur in western Sudan, inviting the entire campus to participate. Thousands of people were in refugee camps in Chad, they said.
I interviewed them in the Stupe, the campus café where students studied and gossiped and held Bible studies. With my borrowed tape-recorder rolling, I listened to them talk about their simple desire to just do something in the face of so much evil in the world. And what was more powerful than prayer?
I looked into my husband-to-be’s blue eyes and saw that he was like me, an earnest believer who saw Jesus as the champion of the poor. He was as starry-eyed and serious about living his faith as I was. I listened to his desire for change, for his hope for God’s justice, and I knew. I knew I wanted to forever bind my life to someone like him, someone who wouldn’t settle for an apathetic, ordinary life. We would live in radical contrast to how most American Christians stumbled through their days. And his faith, so blazing and earnest, would bolster and carry mine.
It wasn’t long before we were seniors, sitting together on a blanket with our fingers entwined under the flowering magnolia trees on Blanchard lawn. The blossoms were impossibly cheerful; the smell of earth and worms and cut grass was in the air. Classmates strolled past in the way only college-students in the springtime can when finals are still weeks away, full of carefree jabber and flirtation, the girls in swishy skirts and sleeveless tops sidling up to the boys in cargo shorts and flip-flops. Two guys tossed a Frisbee back and forth. The sound of guitar wafted over from another cluster of students lounging on the grass.
We were on our own blanket island, reading the Bible together like the earnest Christians we were, pretending to be unaware of people walking by. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Josh read, pulling his hand away to turn the onionskin page of his Bible. “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
The spiky grass prickled my bare legs as I reached over to regrasp his hand, his touch causing my heart to tighten and then relax. He handed me the worn Bible, and I continued reading: “If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
We stared up at those dancing blossoms, inhaled spring’s scent, dazed by newfound love and our mutual desire to produce good fruit for God. Later that week we attended the three-hour Easter vigil at the Anglican church we attended, standing on our chairs, ringing bells and shouting hallelujahs when the priest announced: “He is risen!” Rebirth was all around us; resurrection reigned. It felt like a guarantee.
Josh claimed the title of “unbeliever” during Advent last year, during the season when we light candles and read apocalyptic scriptures and wait expectantly for God incarnate. I had known that he didn’t believe in many orthodox Christian doctrines anymore; when we took the church membership class two years ago, I joined and he didn’t. He couldn’t sign on the dotted line, he told me. He no longer believed in the exclusivity of salvation through Christ; he described the theory of atonement as absurd. I would chew my fingernails while he talked about reading about the Dao or brought home books on Buddhism. Despite everything, I knew he had a thing for Jesus, maybe not as the son of God, but at least as a worthy prophet or sage.
He came to services with me at our small Mennonite church sometimes; he still participated in the life of the congregation, albeit grudgingly. When our daughter was nine months old, he stood up with me in front of the church for her dedication. I wasn’t really worried about him; I had plenty of cynicism and doubt of my own to deal with. But I have a way of being woefully neglectful of unpleasant realities, an all-too-ambivalent approach to what is happening in front of my eyes. It’s sort of like the mystery container in the back of the fridge that I know I should probably check but, no, I’ll deal with it another time. I shut my eyes to the quiet souring of my husband’s faith.
It’s like I’ve been waltzing around while my partner slowly backs away and then finds a seat along the edges of the dance floor. I keep dancing, not acknowledging that he’s gone, just assuming that he has taken a little rest and will be back to join me soon. But when he declared himself no longer Christian, I realized that I’m truly alone in the middle of the dance floor, with people moving all around me, and that I will probably be alone here for the rest of my life. Now I am standing still, and I don’t know whether to start dancing alone or if I should find my own seat along the sidelines. How can I possibly bear to dance alone?
The loss is like a phantom limb that you now realize, with a jolt, has been gone for a long time. Loss over shared practices, loss of a shared community life. He is always going to be on the outside of church, this bedraggled yet rich institution that I’ve always found so much comfort and meaning within. I wonder at how my daughter will never know the beauty of being raised in a family where both parents scramble to get ready for church on Sundays, where we all hold hands to pray before road trips or summer camp. I don’t know what this will look like; I don’t have a model to follow.
I clicked through my blog reader last summer, scanning the writers I follow for an essay to read during my daughter’s nap. A prolific faith blogger had a new series called “Ask a…” where she filters readers’ questions to people living interesting or unusual lives. A recent post was “Ask a Nun,” another was “Ask a Recovering Alcoholic.” I had scanned a few of the articles in the past, enjoying the insight into a diversity of viewpoints.
The most recent installment popped into my reader: “Ask a Mixed-Faith Couple.” I immediately clicked and read about a couple who had built their lives and marriage around a common Christian ministry, only to have the husband become an atheist twelve years later. I read through the questions, carefully consuming the responses one by one. The wife described the process of rebuilding and reexamining her faith. She stressed that she and her husband still share many of the same values even though their faith lives are no longer in common. They remained fiercely committed to their marriage and their four kids. When my husband came home from work, I showed him the article and asked him to read it.
“See?” I told him. “Even if you lose your faith entirely, we will figure this out.”
Later, in the dead of winter, I discussed the article with a friend who knew about my husband’s recent disavowal of faith. “Oh, her?” she said, referring to the wife. “Yeah, she left her husband and had an affair with a married man.” That night I looked up the article, clicking the links to the couple’s personal blog. Yes, it was all there: divorce, betrayal, and a new husband who shared her Christian faith.
It would be easy to make this all about my husband’s faith crisis, but my own spiritual shift started several years back. I stopped reading my Bible, though I still packed it in my overnight bag whenever I left town. The Book of Common Prayer developed a permanent water ring on the front cover, functioning as a coaster on my nightstand. My prayer life, once a raging river, petered into occasional drips. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in God. The scandalous beauty of the incarnation, the upside-down kingdom, all of these things still captured my imagination. I still loved God, yet my spiritual disciplines fell away.
Was it apathy? Laziness? Cynicism? Yes to all. But many of my college friends were in similar places. We had spent four years in an Evangelical college where spirituality was spoon-fed (and sometimes force-fed) to us every day. So much importance was placed on our individual piety, on our personal relationships with God, that it seemed inevitable that we would experience a spiritual drop-off after graduating, as our small, protected pool was sucked into the big wide ocean.
As time passed I grew afraid of examining my own beliefs. I felt like Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk, where she describes the contemplative life as plowing up the earth within her heart. “As I take my spade in hand,” she writes, “as far as I can see, great clods of earth are waiting, heavy and dark, a hopeless task.”
For years I’ve been standing here, my spade in hand, assessing my own barren fields. I am afraid of digging into my own dark clods. I am worried about what I will find.
I have been doing a lot of numbing lately. I pick a trashy TV show on Netflix and binge-watch two or three episodes a night after my daughter and husband go to bed. I am avoiding writing and I am avoiding myself and I am avoiding God.
The other night I was refreshing my Facebook browser yet again and a story popped up about a young woman who had drowned in Lake Michigan. She was the daughter of the founder of Alpha, a popular Christian discovery class that my mom used to teach. The teaser for the story was something about how she lived this incredible Christian life. I clicked the link, desperate to know what that looked like.
The article didn’t give me what I was searching for; it didn’t reveal an inspired life that pushed me to something more. But I clicked because I was hungry for those stories that were so common back in Christian college. Stories about kingdom people, the ones being used by God to show great love and address injustice, the ones who healed and brought hope and were faithful. I am hungry to see people living for Jesus, and I am hungry to be inspired. I want to remember what attracted me to Christianity in the first place.
“I finally feel free now that I’m done with Christianity,” he tells me. “I can stop being guilty. I’m no longer pretending to be better than I am. I am done with trying to make something that isn’t. I just feel free.”
I suppose I should be proud of him for being bold, for not pretending, for being true to what he actually believes. It’s a lot braver than I have been with my lapsed piety and unexamined heart.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who does Christian ministry among Muslims. She told me about a prayer meeting she attended recently. Instead of praying outright for the conversion of the immigrant families they serve, a leader of the local literacy ministry asked God for something more profound.
“He prayed that all of us would shed our false conceptions about God,” my friend said. “He prayed we all would be converted to true belief about who really God is, not what we’ve pegged him to be.”
I confess that I hope to see my husband converted someday in this way. I hope I am, too.
It seems like all the wedding gifts we registered for five years ago are breaking. The shredding attachment on the food processor snapped a few months ago. (And no, the blend feature will not work as a substitute when slicing cabbage.) We have broken all the water glasses and the replacement set. One plate was completely shattered, several mugs chipped. We still use the rusty dish-drying rack. The tomato press from Williams and Sonoma is on the shelf above the refrigerator, never used, still in the box. The knives all need sharpening.
Five years ago we recited the Episcopalian liturgy in which we vowed ourselves to one another, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We were married on a summery day in late spring, a day that recalled Wendell Berry’s words: “The woods and pastures are joyous in their abundance…. Who now can believe in winter?” Trees sported half leaves, their green a pale lime. We held hands before our gathered friends and family under the maple trees, Whale Tail Lake behind us. My mother, who is a Presbyterian minister, performed the ceremony. The clouds formed into an elongated V over the altar; a friend remarked later that it looked like the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending.
Our friends and family prayed for us: Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.
That unity may overcome estrangement. I turn that phrase over and over; I pick it up and examine it. Despite the ways we’ve changed, I realize that this is still my prayer, my hope. That, in our unity, our lives would be a sign of Christ’s love.
I attend church most Sundays while my husband often goes to a nearby coffee shop to read or study. Somehow his absence frees me to sit and experience the service inside my own mind instead of filtering each potentially offensive thing through what I imagine to be his. I stop focusing on my peripheral vision, stop analyzing his body language (are his eyes open? closed? arms crossed? by his side?). Now I sit alone and search for my own thoughts, my own faith.
Still, it’s a rare Sunday that I find much encouragement from our weekly service. I often sit down in an empty pew toward the back and stare at the words in the bulletin, my mind not registering the announcements about upcoming prayer meetings and office hours for the pastor. Then the piano drums out the notes of the next hymn, and the congregation stands and sings:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
And, somehow, despite my inattention, I find myself weeping. How silly, I think as I snuff back tears in the midst of that tiny, singing church, this faith community that continues to meet each Sunday even as the world rages. I grasp the hard wooden pew in front of me to steady myself. I am aware that I am standing alone, but I hang on tight. It feels solid and sure in my grip.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.