bearing witness

“Though it may alienate your family/ And blur the lines of your identity/ Let go of what you know and honor what exists/ Daughter, that’s what bearing witness is.” —David Bazan, “Bearing Witness”

The first time I heard this song on my Pandora station, I was in the car, driving my sons to some kind of appointment or another. It was a routine kind of morning, just trying to accomplish that small miracle of getting everyone where they need to be when they need to be there.

Something in those first words — “I’ve clung to miracles I have not seen/ From ancient autographs I cannot read” — had me straining to catch all the lyrics. By the final notes, my eyes were full and my chest was tight with that ache it gets — high and to the left — when I feel like someone else is saying my words for me. I almost had to pull the car over.

I’ve played it repeatedly — sometimes on repeat — ever since.

It’s like a love song you obsess over in high school. You know — the kind of song that somehow perfectly captures the essence of your beloved, or your longing, or your loss, or your hopes for the future. So you listen, and you listen, and you listen.

Except, if this is a love song, it’s an ode to honesty. Or doubt.

Maybe it was reading Cat’s Cradle for the first time. Maybe it was my confusion over bloodthirsty Old Testament God and Jesus being the same Person. Maybe it was the first time I thought about hell as a real percentage instead of only as a real place. Maybe it was the first Sunday I slept in, or that first Sunday, six months later, when I tried to walk back through the doors.

I don’t know when it started, exactly, but it’s been coming on, this doubt, for years and years. It started out as a sincere search for what I felt was a grossly misrepresented Jesus. Clearly, it took me further than I intended.

This last year, something shifted; a line was crossed. I could no longer make the religion of my childhood make sense. Doubt became disbelief, and I realized I wasn’t likely to “find the right church.”

I have grieved. Hard.

I’ve wondered who I am now.

I’ve wondered if it’s possible to retrace my last few steps, find my way back.

It’s not impossible. But thus far, it hasn’t happened, and when I’m fully honest with myself, I admit I’m not sure I want it to. Fundamentalism is safe, but the costs are high.

Anyone who knew me in my teens and early twenties might be surprised by such a radical turn. Or maybe not. Maybe my hangups and pain-in-the-ass question asking and distaste for cliche were early indicators of a heretic’s nature.

But for anyone who knows me now, this admission can’t come as much of a surprise.

Though my mother had her suspicions, both of us were unprepared for the fallout from a recent conversation — in the car, on that same road where I heard my song, it occurs to me now — where she asked, “So . . . what do you believe?” I’m schooled enough in the tenets of our faith to understand exactly why she feels as she does — her disappointment, her questions of where she went wrong, even her anger. But I’m certain my feelings are an enigma. For the life of her, she can’t figure out why I’m “doing” this. At 34. With sons — and their eternities — to consider.

Chances are, if the question wouldn’t have been posed so bluntly, I’d probably have kept my mouth shut several more years. I’m a coward, and I hated — still hate — the idea of hurting or offending anyone, least of all the community that raised me. Decades of putting on a proper church face — flip the switch, keep up appearances, don’t embarrass anyone — don’t just vanish.

But there’s a relief in this, a freedom, that comforts me in the midst of a very real heartbreak.

For the first time in a very long time, I feel able to speak on behalf of my own life, my own heart. I’ve accepted that this will stretch some of my relationships with people who care about me deeply and are deeply devout. I mean to speak kindly. But I’m no longer willing to pretend that wrong things were right, that guilt and fear and indoctrination were somehow idyllic and I’m lucky to have had them in my head all these years.

I often feel like I’m starting from scratch these days. Struggling to find and piece together meaning in new ways, trying to find a more loving path forward for my family and the little boys I’m supposed to protect and guide. I’m sure lots of people have done this before, but for me it feels like completely uncharted territory. It’s all thrilling and terrifying and outrageously beautiful, like someone’s turned up the color saturation levels on my entire life.

I’m not out to convince anyone of anything — I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime, and besides, I haven’t particularly landed on anything I’m certain of myself. But if you’re here in a similar place, or if you find yourself here someday, I hope, at the very least, you won’t feel alone.

4 thoughts on “bearing witness”

  1. This is beautiful. I’m truly sorry for your heartbreak, but appreciate so much your honesty and doubt. For me it helped to switch from a Baptist to a Methodist church, because I, too, disagreed with so many things in my upbringing. Something our new pastor said just recently is cheesy, but really stuck with me: Christanity is not a behavior modification program – it’s a heart transplant.
    I have no doubt you are going to give your husband and sons all they could ever need and more. You are amazing.

    1. Jennie, thank you so much for this. It means even more because you and I have shared words back and forth since those more devout days. To have people encourage me along the way, even when I’m messy and am not quite sure where I’ll land, is precious to me. And I’m so glad you’ve found a place where you feel more at home and at peace. Hugs, lady!

    1. I love you, too, Jamie. Thanks for being a safe place to share even before I was ready to do it here. You’ve been amazing.

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