How the Big Questions Saved My Faith

I sat safely in that small, white church
with skyward steeple,
nestled in rolling, green hills.

Songs of salvation
kept me inside.

The walls of the church:
sturdy and strong–
carefully constructed–
supposedly airtight.

The flame in my air-starved heart faded slowly.


Did anyone else notice them?
Near the ceiling.  Near the foundation.
Some small.  Some wide.

Panic choked my heart.
Would the whole structure collapse?
Couldn’t anyone else see the light seeping in through the fissures?

The songs seemed silly now.
I snuck out the back door.

(The Beginning.)

©2014 J.L. Sanborn

*          *          *

I wrote this poem months ago, and I didn’t think I would be sharing it here.  But I think the pieces on embracing your story and invitation were written to me–a nudge to go a bit deeper with this writing thing.  To share a little bit wider.  I’ve got a lot of nervous energy in doing this.  It’s also possible that I’m a little melodramatic.

So in the spirit of embracing my story, I have a confession to make:  I Love my Questions.  I do.  I am thankful for my Questions.  I think the Big Questions saved my faith.

I’ve alluded to Questions in other places here.  I am hesitant to go too far into explaining the Questions.  I don’t want to scare anybody.  I don’t want to try to “convert” people who are quite happy and satisfied with the way that their beliefs play out in their minds and hearts and lives.  I just stumbled on a great quote by Rainer Maria Rilke in which he says: “[B]e happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend[.]”  I love that.  I can look back to times where I did torment some with my doubt, wondering why they weren’t bothered by the questions that bothered me.  And then when this faith journey became amazing and God became so very real to me, I probably frightened some with my joy and faith.  It was hard to contain, and I wanted everyone to find what I had found.

I don’t want to torment or frighten anyone here.  That is not my purpose. I just know that, especially a few years ago, I needed to read stories like mine.  So I’m writing because I am sensing that it is what I need to do.  And I am putting this out there for those that might need to hear it.

There are places on the internet (and in life) where people like to debate the various Answers to the Questions.  I’m not interested in that.  Some people like to argue about whose Answers are better.  Some people will claim that their Answers are the only true Answers.  I’m not interested in that either.  And honestly, at least for now, I don’t feel very concerned about trying to figure out the Answers.

I’ve read articles where people complain that Doubt seems to be sexy, cool, or trendy.  They figure that is why people are voicing questions about God and Jesus and the Bible and about church and about the way that we do church.  I’ve never considered myself sexy, cool, or trendy.  Those adjectives don’t motivate me.

When the Questions first hit me, I was kind of terrified.  The Questions were not fun or cool or any of those other adjectives.

When the Questions first hit me, I felt like I was losing my faith, which was what I thought was the most important thing about me.

I was afraid for a long time.  I was afraid of telling anybody about what my questions were.  I hid myself–my deep, down self–from some of my best friends.  I hid myself from the people at church.  Maybe this was not fair.  But I hid because I didn’t know what to do with my questions.  I was also afraid of what they would think if they knew.

Sometimes I was afraid to utter these Questions out loud–even to friends who shared the Questions.  But nothing terrible or cosmic like lightening struck me when I did manage to whisper out the words.  I seriously whispered them.

Somehow, in spite of this fear, I managed to find a band of people who also grappled with Big Questions.  This made the Questions less scary.  We would sit over coffee or dinner and ask each other:  How did we get here?  Will we be okay?  And we would also ask:  How come they don’t see it?  Why don’t they have the Questions?  Maybe this also was not fair.  I think that I’m starting to understand that not everybody needs the Questions like I needed them.   It’s okay to be asking different questions or even no questions at all, I suppose.

Grappling with the Questions (along with some other factors) caused me great anxiety.  The kind of anxiety where your heart races uncontrollably, your chest tightens, and you start to cry for no apparent reason.  The kind of anxiety that can land you immobile and sick in bed for a few days at a time.  The Questions were definitely not sexy, cool, or trendy.  I gave myself permission to stop attending church on Sunday mornings after experiencing an anxiety attack just walking into the sanctuary.

The Questions can lead one toward skepticism and cynicism.  I’ve spent some time there as well.  Maybe this is trendy, but trendy is not why I was there.  It’s probably easy to get stuck here; maybe that’s why we fear the Questions so much.  Skeptical and cynical are not life-giving and are not where I wanted to stay.

So how did I grow to love these Questions?  My Questions haven’t changed.

Somehow, for me, the Questions were a door that ushered me into an experience of God that was real and beautiful and unexplainable–like nothing I had experienced before the Questions.  The Questions were like keys springing open locks that had kept my mind from seeing what was real.  Once opened, there was no turning back.  There is no way to unsee.  The Questions forced me to let go of Beliefs to which I had been clinging to like a life preserver.  A set of Beliefs are not what save us or give us life.  That Life is from God.  Not from what I understand about God.

The Questions were and are part of my journey of faith and becoming.  And what I am discovering is that faith really is not so much about the Answers.  For me, faith is about letting go, listening, trusting and following.  One of the things that I had to let go of was my quest for the Answers–even the quest for answers about what I am supposed to believe about Jesus.  I am probably unorthodox.  The creeds are a bit too much for me these days–too many words, too many beliefs.  These Questions of mine are truly Big (as far as church people are concerned).  But what I have experienced–this faith that I have fallen into in the middle of all these questions–is real and beautiful.

So I think I will be going there–exploring how I got to where I am, exploring this faith that is beyond a set of defined beliefs.

I love this thought by John O’Donohue from the Four Elements:

God is not a dead answer.  God is the greatest question in the universe, a question that has kept itself free of banal answers.  This is where all fundamentalists and sects get lost.  They convert the passion, wildness, and danger of God as a question into a clichéd answer that one can paste onto everything.  This kind of attempt at protecting God from the smallness of human need reduces God to something passionless and complacent.  This is the kind of God that . . . could never dance.

Today, I embrace the Questions–but loosely.  They don’t define me or my faith.  (More on that another time.)

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