Sharing Spiritual Stories, Even When Your Voice Shakes

This summer, my two-year-old and I were driving on the way to some errand or another. His older sister was absent, over at a friend’s house to play. He found that he could chatter uninterrupted about whatever topic he wanted, a rare pleasure. Suddenly, he asked me with urgency, “Why is the sky blue?” I admitted that I wasn’t sure why the sky was blue, but I could Google the answer when we returned home. He paused to consider what I had said and asked another question, “Who made the sky?”

God, I thought immediately, but I couldn’t quite make myself say the word, or perhaps, commit to the theological implications of this particular answer. While I tried to figure out what exactly to say, my son moved on to other observations about the nature surrounding us. I, however, was disquieted.

A few weeks later, the whole family was driving again after a short rain, and we saw not one or two, but three rainbows. Both kids were excited, smiling and giggling as the pointed to the sky. They kept turning their heads to watch the rainbows as they disappeared behind trees and reappeared over open fields. One rainbow drew our attention, but three rainbows seemed magical. As my daughter and son sought glimpses of the rainbows painted across the blue sky, a stray thought popped into my head: The rainbow is the evidence of God’s promise to Noah to never flood the Earth again. I started to say something to my kids. The words died on my tongue. I stopped myself once again.

Then my second grader returned from her second week of school with a question. “Mom, a kid at school told me that people who don’t go to church go to hell,” she paused and asked, “Is this true?” I explained that some people might believe this, but I didn’t. “Do you believe it?” I asked her. “I don’t,” she noted solemnly before she rushed off to find her brother.

These three moments have haunted me since each happened. They felt like particular failures, my theological failures. Rather than include my children in the Christian theology of my childhood and young adulthood, I chose not to. I could have shared the stories that adults, youth ministers, and ministers passed onto me. I could have said what I was thinking in those moments and shared my conflicting emotions. But I didn’t. I was silent.

What would I say? How would I explain myself to an almost eight-year-old and a now three-year-old? What story would I tell them about my religious life? I imagine a conversation along these lines:

I used to go to church, but now, I don’t. I used to have a church that I loved, but that church now contains very few children and lacks a children’s ministry. Many of the churches around us do have a children’s ministry, but they exclude people based on gender identity, race, and/or sexuality. I can’t abide exclusion (no one should), and I can’t take you two to a church that will actively teach you to exclude people. That’s not fair to you or anyone you might encounter in this world we all share.

I find particular forms of institutional Christianity problematic while I still yearn to be a part of a community that cares about social justice.

Maybe the real problem is that I find particular forms of institutional Christianity problematic while I still yearn to be a part of a community that cares about social justice. I want to attend a church that seeks to create a better world for not just its members, but everyone. I want you two to help create a better world as well. Maybe I’m too afraid of what others might teach the two of you. Maybe I refuse to let you know yet that hate resides in the places we least expect it to—including the sweet-looking church nearby. Maybe I’m nervous that I’m too much of a troublemaker for a church, even as I continue to write for Bearings, a blog about ministry.

What I fear is that those older, familiar stories about Christianity are no longer stories that I own or can claim, even as they linger with me for all these years. I see a rainbow, and I can’t help but think of God’s promise. This is a sacred story that’s rooted in my bones. I couldn’t remove it if I tried, and I don’t want to. But are they stories I can give to you outside of a church community?

My religious life, my spiritual life, my whatever-you-might-label-it life, is more complicated than it once was. Some of the sacred stories, which used to bring me comfort, no longer do. Some, however, still bring me hope. Things have changed; it’s a tired phrase, I know, but an accurate one. I’ve changed too. There’s another transformation or transformations awaiting me, but I’m not sure what this entails.

That’s were my imagined spiritual confession falters. How do I even begin to tell my children what my spiritual story is when I don’t quite understand its shape yet myself? How do I tell them my story in a way that makes clear that it’s also our story, which we are creating together as a family? What stories are they piecing together from my words and my silences at these moments? What story am I shaping from their spiritual and religious questions? How do I not tell them this story—our story—as it progresses?

I thought about these particular moments again and again when I read Alyssa and Elizabeth’s recent conversation about spiritual stories, or perhaps, the lack of these narratives in our increasingly polarized and uncivil culture. Alyssa wrote, “Why should people share their spiritual or religious narratives if doing so may result in being labeled a sinner, or a simpleton, or a heretic? Why should people talk about religion in their families if doing so may cause them to be shunned?”

What I realized as I read her words was that I’m afraid of sharing my spiritual story. I’ve been afraid to share this story for a really long time. I shared bits and pieces, but never the story in full.

I’m afraid to proclaim my story, my truth, because I’m worried about what people will think and how I will be judged. Sinner, simpleton, heretic, or something much worse. I worry about what my story means not only for me, but for my children too. I worry about the consequences of being honest, even as honesty is one of my guiding principles. I’m concerned that I might no longer be able to write for Bearings if I tell the truth.

If I tell my spiritual story, what will happen? Can I live with this story being out in the world? Can I live without it being present either?

I’m an agnostic who still wants to be Christian. Or perhaps, a Christian who also happens to be agnostic. Can I be both? Can I not be both? I’m not sure.

Leave safety behind,” the Presbyterian activist Maggie Kuhn famously said. “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes.” In that daunting spirit, here’s the spiritual story that I’m reluctant to tell.

I wasn’t Christian, and then, I was. I was baptized in front of a church that loved me and welcomed me. And now, years later, I’m not sure what I am. I’m an agnostic who still wants to be Christian. Or perhaps, a Christian who also happens to be agnostic. Can I be both? Can I not be both? I’m not sure.

20160916_nozell_storytellingWhat I do know is that I’m working toward a more inclusive sacred story that treats people as people, that recognizes racial and gender inequality and strives to combat both, that identifies how we can help, that encourages us to reach out, that prioritizes doing the most good, and that recognizes that people get to create their own stories about themselves.

That’s the spiritual story I want to be a part of it, and I find it on social media from ministers, scholars, and people who just want to make the world better. I find it in the tweets of Jes Kast, Broderick Greer, Derrick Weston, Carol Howard Merritt, and Anthea Butler. I find it in books by Rebecca Solnit, Audre Lorde, Glennon Doyle Melton, and Heather Havrilesky. I find it in my community. I find it in my family.

It’s the spiritual story that I try to create when I write about ministry for Bearings and that, I think, the other writers for the blog do as well. It’s the spiritual story that I share with my kids, day in and out. It’s the one we’re building together. It’s our shared ministry, our shared story. Maybe it’s different than the stories I received, but it might also be better.

It’s a story, not caught up in the labels of who I once was or might be, but of what I’m trying to do in our lovely, but messed up world.

I can still marvel at the rainbow and the divine promise it represents. Writing is still my way to ministry, no matter how complicated my story seems to me. I shared my story with all of you. Will you share yours?

Kelly J. Baker

Kelly J. Baker is a freelance writer with a religious studies PhD who covers higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, American religions, and popular culture. She has regular columns at the Chronicle for Higher Education’s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters. She’s written for The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, The Washington Post’s “Faith Street”, and Brain, Child. She is the author of the award-winning book The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 and The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture. When she’s not writing essays or wrangling two children, two dogs, and a seriously mean cat, she’s hacking away at a collection of essays on apocalypses in America tentatively titled The End of Us. You can find her on TwitterFacebook, or her blog.

Image Credits:

Cover – Martin Borgman, “This Reflection Makes a Triple Rainbow, Right?“, July 1, 2012. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Inside – Marc Nozell, “Story Telling,” September 27, 2014. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.