I have a love-hate relationship with pants. It’s usually like 90% hate, 10% love, depending on the pants in question. If you’re a generally regular-sized person with a few plus-sized parts, shopping for pants turns into a special kind of torture. My closet is full of high-rise, low-rise, mid-rise, skinny-leg, wide-leg, stretchy, structured, every-other-kind-of-pants — most of them purchased as experiments, some of them worn sparingly, many of them Ghosts of Tara’s Body Past. I recently bought 2 pairs of jeans that are labeled “Shaping Jeans.” Sounds good, I thought. I could use a little shaping.
tried them on somehow managed to pull them up over my butt, shove my tummy fluff inside, zip them up in the dressing room, and discover through the borderline hard-to-breathe discomfort that they were, in fact, true to their name. Hello, new shape. Lookin’ gooood. I’ve had them on rotation for a while, and every time I wear them it’s like I have a little secret: You don’t know what’s going on beneath the surface! What’s stuffed inside is between me and my Shaping Jeans, and you are none the wiser, random passerby! Nevermind that every time I unbutton my jeans, my torso is like a can of Pillsbury biscuits involuntarily exploding through any crevice it can find.
Don’t you wish that people were more honest? Like, wouldn’t it be refreshing if, when someone asks you how you’re doing, you can feel free to respond, “I’m extremely bloated and lonely. How are you?” Not in a crabby or complaining way, but just a purely truthful way? Sometimes I crave that freedom.
I’ve spoken to women friends recently who are enduring a range of experiences so different and unique from the next, but seem to respond in a similar way. It’s a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and anxiety. Fear of burdening her friends with the honest truth. Embarrassed that she isn’t able to adequately deal with the struggle on her own. Anxious about the fallout when everything finally comes to the surface. I’m in this club, people. Actually, I could probably be president of the club.
Instead of letting the messy, imperfect, chaotic, broken parts of our lives be exposed, we so often feel no choice but to retreat and cover up every last bit and piece. Instead of asking questions out loud, we are ruled by shame and fear. It’s easier to stuff everything inside so no one knows how lumpy and bumpy our lives really are beneath the surface. It’s a painful facade, superficial and temporary, but we look good.
Maybe you can’t relate to that description. Maybe you’ve never squeezed into a pair of Shaping Jeans for the soul. Perhaps when you survey the compartments of your life — emotional, spiritual, physical, financial, sexual — you sense pure contentment, security, peace. If that’s the case, first of all: I’m a tad skeptical. Also, WHAT IS YOUR SECRET?
Last summer I spent two weeks at a camp for children with special needs in Ukraine. I was placed with a group of adult orphans from a nearby boys’ home, and I fell so deeply in love with them. It took me months to write a thank-you letter to my financial supporters, and it’s still difficult to write about even now because I can never summon an adequate string of words to describe my experiences there.
It was inexplicably powerful, challenging, life-giving, heartbreaking, and every single sub-level of emotion on the spectrum — everything all at the same time. And while I’m confident that Jesus met me there and that the Holy Spirit was palpably present in that little camp, I came back home with more questions than answers.
From a journal entry on July 24, 2016:
These boys are unwanted by their parents and most of society, and they are prisoners of their own bodies and minds. How can this happen? What is God’s plan for them? What is their purpose on Earth? Why don’t they have a way out? A week of camp each summer for 6 or 12 boys isn’t enough. A weekly visit from a ministry isn’t enough. I am not satisfied with that. I want answers for how this injustice can be righted. I want proof that their lives are not in vain, that they have value aside from giving people like me someone to love. What do they get out of this life? God, I know you have not abandoned them, but I need proof. I need answers. I need to know that Anton is safe and loved and that his life has significance and meaning. Is that something you can give me?
A seed was planted in those questions last summer. I’ve spent months splitting time between processing and ignoring them while they germinated, propelling me into what, I think, has become a full-blown search for answers.
In the language of church-people, the word “searching” has always been a dirty one.
“How’s so-and-so doing? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Oh, well, she’s just really searching right now. We’re kind of worried about her.”
I promise I’ve heard multiple variations of that exact exchange. Why, though? Why is the initial instinct worry instead of encouragement? Why are we so concerned about the people who search — the ones who dig and pursue and relentlessly seek to unearth the answers to their questions about faith, God, theology? Why are questions and doubts so often squelched with out-of-context scripture and rote platitudes?
There is a certain shame associated with leaning into skepticism that keeps people of faith from openly, earnestly seeking answers, and, to be honest, I’m over it. It’s too uncomfortable to keep it all shoved inside, zipped up, on the verge of ripping at the seams. So, if you’ve ever sought permission to be like WTF, God? — with any authority I have as a person who loves Jesus, I’m here to grant it to you. Welcome to the club.
Recently on The Bible for Normal People podcast, I heard Rob Bell say: “Lots of people aren’t aware that an evolution in regards to any aspect of life or faith is an absolutely necessary, normal, and healthy part of being a human being. What’s scary is when people are exactly who they were and have the exact same framework and perspectives that they did 20 years ago, for example. No evolution is death.”
You heard the man! No evolution is death, and I’m not ready to die yet. My faith is living and breathing and growing, and I can’t keep it from taking its own unique shape because I’m afraid other people will see what’s beneath the surface.
I want to talk about hard stuff and ask questions about things that matter.
I want to validate my beliefs on feminism and egalitarian theology and the roles & responsibilities of women in the Church.
I want to learn more about racism and reconciliation and diversity and oppression and intersectionality.
I want to integrate the truths of evolution and science and morality and physiology into my understanding of God.
I want to uncover the realities and myths of Heaven and Hell and the in-between and who goes where and why.
I want to dispel untruths about purity narratives and homosexuality and abortion and the Church’s views on sex.
I want to be convicted about money and poverty and service and sacrifice and the global Kingdom.
I want to grasp miracles and spiritual gifts and prayer and the supernatural.
I want to explore suffering and justice and purpose and pain and “God’s plan” and mental health.
I want to read books by historical and contemporary theologians who dare to ask questions and present alternatives and admit when the answers are vague or nonexistent.
I want to question the inerrancy of the Bible, its historical contexts, which parts of it are literal and which parts of it are poetry, allegory, personal wisdom — to reconcile the Bible’s depiction of God’s wrath with His unconditional love.
In Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts, she writes: “Whether it’s in our relationship with God or with our own families, at some point we find that it is time to sort. It’s time to figure out what we need to keep, what we need to toss, and what we need to reclaim.”
I can’t even explain how refreshing it is to get approval to prioritize and organize elements of my faith, even to the extent of getting rid of a few things. I think we all have a closet full of dusty artifacts, forgotten garments, painful memories. Sorting through the clutter is always an arduous process, but when you spend precious time evaluating what’s important and why, then thoughtfully recalibrate, it’s cleansing for both the closet and the soul. I’m ready to sort.
None of this means that my identity in Christ has shifted. I know who I am. I know that I am beloved. And I know that I have been created to learn and grow and adapt, not to snuff out a spirit of curiosity.
This journey is in its infancy, but it’s happening. And truth be told, I hope I’m never 100% satisfied with the destinations I mark on my map. If you ask me how I’m doing, my answer may be, “I’m in the existential throes of deconstructing everything I ever learned about God, how are you?” Don’t be scared.
Life can be a legit mess, no matter how much Faith, Hope, and Love you hide deep in your heart, because, among them, are often Confusion, Shame, and Insecurity. How much more authentic would life be if we hung all of those out to dry together after an intense spin cycle, on display in the sun for all of our neighbors to see — not as an invitation for judgment, but as a welcome into the disarray of the human experience?
I want to live in that world: A world free of restricting, body-sculpting denim and free from the baggage that accompanies the search.
(I’m keeping my jeans, though. They were expensive.)
If you’re interested, these are the books I’ve read and podcasts I’ve followed so far this year. I’d love for you to share a recommendation in the comments!
Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science by Mike McHargue
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell
Out of Sorts: Making Sense of an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis