I help teach a confirmation class at my church, which means I try to help explain and model faith for a bunch of middle schoolers. It’s both the coolest thing ever and hell. (Not usually at the same time.)
When we started Lent, though, my fellow teachers and I wanted to make sure they understood what we were doing. “What do you know about Lent?” we asked. “You give up stuff,” they all responded. And that’s how pretty much everybody sees Lent—you give up stuff. There are varying degrees of knowing why you give up stuff, but everyone seems to be agreed that Lent is a time of deprivation.
What’s funny about Lent is that many people give up something and realize later that they actually gave up something totally different. When I gave up God for 40 days in college, I failed: I never gave up God, not really. I gave up my suppositions, my assumptions, my adorable box I had papier-machéd for this god I thought I had. As it turned out, I had no idea—which is why the giving-up-god thing worked.
I have a journal entry (yes, I do keep a not-for-you journal, Reader) from the last week of that Lent these seven years ago that cracks me up: “Right. So. I think I’m going to give myself back to God on Easter, maybe. At the end of this whole Lent thing, I’ve realized that He was right there beside me the whole time, and He never let me go. I just need to suck it up and embrace Him. Screw the doctrine and the religion, I’m about ready to go home to God Himself.”
Yeah, that’s actually what it says. Collegiate Christiana was still finding her writing mode. But what I find curious is that I said I would give myself “back” to God. So technically, this isn’t a conversion story. It’s a return, like the prodigal son who needed the space to fall flat on his own and figure out that, perhaps, his Father wasn’t such a jerk after all. In fact, this Father loved him the whole time—loved him even after he’d been a complete idiot and debased himself in just about every way his culture would have abhorred.
One of my favorite lines in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz is about God’s love: “I imagined [God] looking down on this earth, half angry because His beloved mankind had cheated on Him, had committed adultery, and yet hopelessly in love with her, drunk with love for her.”
I like the idea of God’s being drunk with love. Only a love deep enough to be intoxicating could keep a Man on a cross professing forgiveness and concern for the people in front of Him who were just fine, physically. And if Someone is drunk with love, is love, He can withstand all the many ways I try to remake Him and myself and say I’m still with you.
This is not to say that things were all roses, that Good Friday or this one. I was sick over the idea that I was just going back because Lent was over and that’s what you do; Easter comes and you binge on the chocolate you haven’t been eating and you deliberately eat steak on Friday. Also, I’m a huge fan of symbolism. And that might have been part of it. But more than that was the realization that I could live without chocolate and steak and soda pop and swear words (well, maybe not those) and all the other things I’d given up for Lent because my grandmother told me to.
I wouldn’t do so well without God.
And I only realized that because I was doing rather better without the god I’d told to buzz off. I had given God so many costumes of who I thought He should be and how I wanted our relationship to work that there wasn’t a relationship at all anymore, which is why I still count this as my conversion story. When I took communion on Easter in a super cold and wet circle of stones at hella early in the morning, I was indeed saying “I accept this God of Christianity and choose to give my life to Him.” Whether it was the first time I’d said that or not doesn’t matter so much as it was the first time I understood what I was promising.
But it was—is—slow going. I rebuilt from scratch, because I refused to just go back to the patterns and the god I had from before. That’s not what that Lent was about. I had to wait, and listen, and ask Who God was, and who I was, and who we were together.
One of the things I realized that Lent was that faith or lack of faith isn’t a badge. Being an agnostic or an atheist or a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or whatever means nothing if you consider it on par with being a brunette or being Asian or being tall. Those are things you are, things that genetically or geographically were decided by someone other than you. But faith? Faith deserves to be something you choose—it deserves to be something that changes if it is no longer valid for you because acting a faith of inheritance renders it shallow enough to hold nothing. In that Lent, I realized that if I was going to be a Christian, it had to be because I believed it, not because it made me look good.
That Easter, my mother gave me The Gospel According to Harry Potter and The Gospel According to Tolkien. Her note in the card was this: “For a girl who doesn’t read the Gospels according to themselves, this should be interesting.” And she was right; I had put my Bible in the lockbox while I sorted this out. Of course, then I’d had to dig it back out for Bible Tuesday and for my theology class and my philosophy class, because my giving up God didn’t mean He’d given up me.
And He still hasn’t. And so it is a Good Friday, because neither death nor I can hold God down.
That’s worth following.