It was a beautiful fall day, and I was riding passenger seat in my new friend’s car. We had been spending the day getting to know each other and it seemed extra special, for making new friends as an adult doesn’t seem to happen that often, at least not in my life. A couple of months previous, I was speaking at the women’s retreat she was attending and we were lunching at the same table. The conversation found us sharing ministry stories and exchanging phone numbers for we realized we only lived a short 45 min drive from one another and had determined that this first conversation would not be our last.
But on this day, as we were driving, still in the early stages of our friendship, she asked me a question that would ultimately help redirect my current course. Perhaps put a different way, this question would shape the next leg of my journey. I didn’t know it at the time, even as I felt the shift inside me, but it would be instrumental in starting the reconstruction of my personal deconstruction of faith.
She was a pastor’s wife and worship leader on her own journey, asking her own questions, and trying to maintain all the expectations and equilibrium that her roles conferred upon her with grace. But we had gone deep, fast; bypassing all the regular get-to-know-you chit chat that usually accompanies budding relationships. Instead we had spent our hours talking about the nitty-gritty of ministry—the hurts, pains, and disappointments over the years; the internal changes we were experiencing and the questions we wanted to ask but felt we couldn’t, especially because we were in ministry; the struggles as women in the male dominated world of church leadership; and the cruelty of people that compounds pain when following God is hard enough on its own. Sure, we had moments of levity and shared some gut busting laughter, but we were two women that needed someone who could identify with life in ministry and with whom we could unload it all and we found that in each other. That deep-dive solidified our friendship.
The question came not as an indictment or inquisition of judgment but as a sincere quest for understanding. It came from an interest in trying to better understand this stranger in her car. It came in response to her own processing, thinking maybe I could help her answer a bit of the question for herself. It came as a nudge from the Divine asking me to take stock.
I had spent a good portion of that day expressing my disdain for things about faith, church, and Christian leadership I could no longer stomach. I had talked about the conflation of nationalism and evangelicalism and how parts of it reminded me of Nazi Germany. I talked about the ease of attending seeker sensitive churches, but how it was so exhausting to keep it all going from the inside. I questioned the on-going decline of church membership in the global west and the majority of church leaders to double-down on what was obviously not working already. And on and on it had gone until, she asked me, “So, what are you for?”
You can be sure I was quick with a response even if it was pithy and lacked sincerity. I had learned well the verse, “be prepared, in season and out, to always give an answer for the hope that you have,” and from all my talking earlier, I was not about to fall silent on this question. However, this question was different. This question had hooks, and it was lodged inside me; it wouldn’t let me go. I had been in a major deconstruction period for a number of years, even though I wouldn’t know that was happening or have language to describe it for another year or so. I was seriously dissecting my faith and my on-going role in religious life. I questioned my theological training, the role of Scripture, the reality of God, the activity of prayer, the Christian narrative I inherited, heaven and hell, the historicity of Christ, and whatever else struck this Enneagram 5 brain of mine. I not only took it all apart, but I inspected every piece, turning each one over and over again, looking for flaws, seeking understanding, and coming up with alternatives and/or solutions to the things that didn’t fit. My desire for authenticity, honesty, and continuity between thought and expression is what made me a good minister, but it would’ve made me a good lawyer, too, because that’s what I had been doing. I had been holding cultural Christianity up to the light and asking it to account for itself—it wasn’t faring well.
And now, here I was, being asked to give account by a friend who was, just hours earlier, a near stranger. I had spent so much time expressing what I was against; now I was being charged to say what I was for. What was I for? Why did I still care? Why not just throw in the towel and walk away? What kept me believing? Why was I still preaching even in the midst of my doubt and uncertainty? What was I for?
That was years ago, now, and I’ve thought about that question many times since then. It has become a sort of litmus for where I am in co-creating with God a world that looks more like heaven than hell. This is because there is a real danger in getting stuck in a cycle of negativity, a cycle that is focused on the failures of the system and what it isn’t rather than the possibilities of a better way forward and what could be. Having experienced my own deconstruction and in talking with others about their deconstruction journeys, while also seeing the cultural shift taking place at this unique time in history, I have no doubt that identifying and naming and speaking out about what a person is against is a normal part of the deconstruction process. But, I will not pretend that it concerns me, as someone who is for Christianity (as it can/could be), that many are stuck deconstructing and when they are finished, with nothing left to take apart, they will have no one to ask them, “What are you for?” It is in focusing on what is redemptive and good and noble and kind and beautiful and honest and better that we turn the corner from deconstructing to reconstructing. It is, perhaps, when we make peace with the past, being able to find the treasures among the trash that we find ourselves closer to the promised land rather than the place that at one time we felt constrained. The wilderness of the process becomes a place of seeing more clearly what is worth hanging onto, even if the treasures are a bit battered and marred from the journey.
So today, here are some things I’m for that give me hope and motivate me to keep moving forward. I’m for:
Holding things and people and ideas loosely
Prayer, the silent, abiding kind
Embracing the many names and ways people refer to the Divine Mystery that I happen to most often refer to as God
A non-literal, historical, literary reading of Scripture
Finding Church outside of the church
The with-ness of God
How to think, not necessarily what to think
Embracing the wisdom and practices of other faith traditions that bring us into contact with God and others
Asking better questions
Honoring all the emotions that come with being human
Seeing God in the dark and the light
Doubt, uncertainty, and not knowing
By no means is this a comprehensive list, but these are things that shape my days in the present. I expect that this list will be written and rewritten many times over, and I’m here for it. Many of these things are a departure from my Christian upbringing and stand in contrast to my theological training, but I am thankful for those things that gave me a context from which to grow and change and evolve. And, I’m so very thankful for a friend that asked me a simple question, not knowing the profound impact it would have on me.
Wherever you’ve been? Wherever you are? Wherever you might find yourself in the future: What are you for?
– Amanda Oster