Coleraine, Northern Ireland
Church wouldn’t have been so bad if my experience of it had been like the everything-is-edible room in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and God was Willy Wonka. Unfortunately, it was more like the bathroom in The Shining, with God as Jack Nicolson who is peering through the door frantically trying to get at you and do horrible things while you quiver in the corner with no escape.
I picked up that God’s dominant characteristics were wrath, anger, disapproval and disappointment. Religion had unachievable standards. You were expected to be something that you could never be and when you messed up you were scrutinised and then excessively punished. You were manipulated and tightly controlled and every ounce of your soul and individuality was tested and sacrificed.
In the churches I went to I kept finding the same thing. Whether behind stern, judgmental preachers who were telling you to turn or burn, or behind charismatic leaders with slick lights and music, God was hidden. It was as if God was a theme park and church was the queuing area in front of it. You wanted to scream and run around and feel every sensation but you were just stuck behind metal bars and you could never get past the turnstile. Like Bono said, ‘Religion is what happens when God leaves the building.’
I have always felt compelled to search for God and I think that my dad and his love for me had an awful lot to do with that. I could sense that there was more just beyond – somewhere completely out of reach there was something wonderful. After my mother and I would have one of our many altercations, usually resulting from her religiosity, my dad would sit beside me on my bed. Once he knew I would let him, he would put his arm around me and pull me really close and tight. He would stroke my hair and say, ‘There, there pet. I know, I know.’
I constantly had two voices in my head; the voice of the God of the religion telling me that I was bad and going to hell and then this other quieter voice calling me to love and adventure. I couldn’t tell which the real one was. So I prayed, ‘I need you to take it all away because I don’t know what’s real. I don’t even know if you’re there because I am so indoctrinated and the trauma is so deep.’
I questioned and questioned and fought until I was exhausted. I got to the point where I would say this very contradictory statement: ‘I don’t believe in God but I think he’s okay with that.’ I had an overwhelming sense that even though I was in the middle of this vast desert I was actually in the centre of his massive hand.
One day, several years later, I was reading a book about God’s silence and something clicked. I was lying on my bed reading the book and the whole world just went silent. Every single atom froze in place like when you take a deep breath before hitting water. And I found him. He was right there in the desert. There was no hint that that was going to be the day it happened because the storm was swirling as usual. But suddenly he was there. And when I found him he was everything I’d hoped he would be. He was love and compassion and grace. It was as if he stroked my hair and said, ‘I know, I know.’
Don’t be afraid of the questions, because God isn’t. He’s big enough to handle it. You have to struggle and fight because what you have at the end of it is a completely authentic and audacious faith. It’s yours! Whether running away or running towards him, whatever state we’re in, we should always be questioning. Always be beautifully broken and desperately in need of grace because he’s not to be found in ‘having it together’; he’s found in the desert and in the chaos.