I told myself I wasn’t going to do this. I said I was going to wait until my trip to Montana was finished before I processed these last several months.
Maybe it’s the IPA in my belly, or maybe my heart has sprung a leak, but this is the first time in months I’ve known it’s the moment to say what’s happened.
See, I’m not who you think I am.
In fact, I’m not who I think I am or who I thought I would be.
I am the girl with a lion tattoo and I’m a coward.
I’m a weakling. And I’m spineless when it comes to things like this.
Especially when I walked away from my faith a few months ago.
I know, right?
I’m the one who had grown up in the church and been baptized (twice) and had Bible references permanently scripted on her body.
But I walked away.
Because faith had sent me into the desert and what I found there left me terrified and stunned, and it blew to shreds everything I thought I knew about God.
I feel like I’ve been gasping for air since February.
But I can breathe now.
Because my Christian label is gone and I don’t have to prove my God to anyone anymore.
I’ve been out of Death Valley for a little less than a month now and still haven’t figured out where it all started. But I think the snowball effect began with the busyness of my job and how poorly I began to take care of myself. More like stopped taking care of myself.
And then conversations started happening and I felt like I had to prove myself.
“What brought you out to Death Valley of all places?”
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
“Are you lost?”
I avoided the truth- that I was assigned to Death Valley through a Christian ministry- and talked instead about my interest in the National Parks and how I’d wanted to be closer to friends in LA.
It wasn’t until they prodded a little more that I admitted I was a church kid who’d come to the desert to tell people about Jesus.
And then a conversation happened that made me question why the hell I was really living in Death Valley, California- of all places- when I could be doing anything else.
Why was a girl like me in a place like this? Was the belief in this Jesus character really worth the isolation and heartache I was experiencing?
The conversation happened on a four-hour road trip with a stranger. He hadn’t mean it as an attack on my faith, but that’s the way it hit me.
And regardless of the space he’d given me to freely speak my mind about this Jesus I believed in and that God I worshiped, I drove the two hours home in silence and wondered if any of it was actually real.
Because when he’d ask why I thought the Bible was inspired by God or how I know for sure that Jesus was perfect and actually existed, the words that came off my tongue seemed to counteract what I’d intended to say.
Turns out I knew nothing and this religion of mine didn’t make any sense.
The ride back to the Valley had me confused. Everything went downhill from there.
I wasn’t feeling anything. The joy with which I’d walked into California was suddenly sapped, and I felt as dry and lifeless as Badwater Basin.
Did I mention I wasn’t taking care of myself?
My motivation to exercise and rest and spend time in creativity or reading the Bible was long gone, and I started gaining weight and finding grey hair on my head.
And then a boy came along.
We started spending time together. And by that I mean all the time together.
But I could feel something stirring in the basement of my heart. Was that joy I felt? I couldn’t be sure.
Story in a nutshell: Boy and I began dating, and I watched my heart resuscitate as he pulled me out to explore the park and drive around with the windows down and climb Mt. Whitney with a couple of our other friends.
I was back to doing what I loved. In fact, I was almost thriving again.
But part of me was stuck in that previous conversation, and I still wasn’t taking care of myself in the things I chose to consume and the ways I spent my time.
My contract finally ended in Death Valley and I apologized to my Christian Ministry team for the ways I’d failed them and for the poor attitude I’d had towards the end of the season.
They said they forgave me and that the last few months had been a hard time for everyone with as busy as the park had been.
Something still wasn’t clicking, though, and as I packed my car and drove to LA to fly home, I started to realize how unhealthy I’d become.
Not just in the way I was (mis)treating my body, but in the way I didn’t care about anything. I felt like I was in a pit.
And my friends had lined its rim with ropes to pull me out, but I didn’t want to come out, much less have the energy to reach up and grab a lifeline.
I was trapped.
When my plane landed in Atlanta around dinnertime on May 12, my best friend Kelly was there to greet me with an eager hug and the plan to stop for some “Pub subs” on the way home.
Driving through that evening’s sunset with the windows down and the pre-rainstorm aromas drifting through the cool summer air, I wanted to cry.
I was finally home and everything was blooming and lovely and so far different from what I was feeling.
And then conversations started happening and I felt like I was coming undone.
The first was with my friend Zack and another happened with a stranger named Robert. Then I talked to Luke and Bobby and Caroline and that’s when the blinders fell off.
In explaining what had been hard or good or memorable or uncomfortable during my time in California, I started to see the ways I’d never been in control.
Everything had unobtrusively aligned to tell a breathtakingly beautiful story, and I’d been too apathetic to see it.
The brightest moments and most brilliant interactions had been taking place all around me, and I’d been too busy to see the underlying source of its beauty and purpose.
Did I mention I wasn’t taking care of myself?
As these conversations started taking place, I started to detox and rest and regain balance in the ways I conducted myself.
A trip to the beach with a couple of unfailing friends and a hard pill to swallow later, I broke things off with Boy and repacked my bags to return to California and start my move to Montana.
It wasn’t that he’d been the issue or that I didn’t have the space in my heart to love someone at the time- it’s that I needed time and space to sort through my deal of confusion and that I could hardly stand to love myself.
That time at home was just what I needed to regain clarity. And it’s not that my friends persuaded me one way or another- it’s that as I opened up to share the things I’d seen and felt in Death Valley, I began to see how much I needed to believe in God.
Whether it all made sense or not, I needed an explanation for why this world is as unfathomably beautiful as it is, and for why I only feel at peace when I’m meditating on Him.
I can’t argue someone out of believing in Buddha or Mother Earth, but I will say this: I dare you to find a source of beliefs as old and as proven and as risky as the belief that Jesus is real, that He’s God.
I still can’t call myself a Christian, though, because just like the words “I love you” have almost all but lost their meaning these days, so has that label.
Instead of the peaceful, loving group it once started as, Christians look more like the unsavory political rallies that have taken place this election year.
They rant and rave about freedom of speech and how they think it’s being taken away and about bathrooms at Target.
And I certainly don’t know the mind of God or what he thinks about those situations, but in looking at Jesus and how he lived and conducted himself in his short time on earth, I can say being called a Christian is the last thing I want to be known as.
Because the way Jesus lived and the way most Christians do today are about as opposite as the ends on a magnet.
And it’s because of that mismatch that I had such trouble proving my God or explaining to people in Death Valley why so many- including themselves- had been hurt by the church.
If Christians are a bunch of spiteful and judgmental straightedges, I can’t be one.
But thanks to eight months of wandering around in the hottest place on earth and the internal dryness that accompanied it, the faith I thought I was walking away from in February has only been refined, and what I thought I knew about being a Christian has drastically shifted.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to church in almost a year- not that there was one in Death Valley for me to “attend.”
But I realized in those eight months that Jesus doesn’t need us to go to church, rather he wants us to be the church (which is what we did have in Death Valley.)
And sometimes that means buying someone a beer and shedding light on how much they’re worth and the cost Jesus paid to make them live forever.
Other times that looks like handing a homeless person a new pair of socks or unloading the dishes so your roommates don’t have to.
But I think a lot of what it looks like to be the church means coming face to face with the value we’ve been given as humans and walking in the freedom it brings us.
I’m still wrestling with what that’s supposed to look like for me, and I have the feeling it might take a while to finally grasp.
But when people fully recognize their values and are willing to wear it proudly, the rules and checklists of religion are replaced with the joy and courage most of us long for but don’t know how to find.
Courageous people with pure joy in their hearts is what I think the church is supposed to look like. Not some clique that creates some shallow, mindless social club members.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the gathering of disciples for collective prayer and singing is important and not a privilege to be taken lightly.
But it’s just as valuable if that happens on a Wednesday night in someone’s living room as it is when genuine followers gather on a Sunday morning in a high school gym or auditorium.
All that to say, my Christian label is gone and I don’t have to prove my God to anyone anymore. Because God doesn’t need proving. He exists whether you believe in him or not.
And the freedom and peace He offers is just as real whether you say yes to it or not.
Sometimes things just come down to faith. And I’ve realized I’m okay with that. If God really created science and logic and is the founder of time itself, he doesn’t need me to prove him to people. It will all point back to Him in the end.
He’d rather us love the people in pits by throwing ropes of hope over the walls and sometimes making the descent to look them square in the eyes and tell them how much they’re worth- to tell them they’re loved, pit status and all, by the source of uncontrollable laughter and pre-rainstorm aromas.
All that to say, what’s happened is this: my faith has been redefined by being refined.
It’s withstood the heat of the desert, and even as I’m still so far from perfect, the confidence I have that Jesus is real and that he invites us to live with him forever has come out more formidable and daring on this side of that heat.
I wouldn’t go as far to say that I’m unstoppable or bulletproof, but I find myself stopping more often to consider how invincible the God I’m choosing to love and follow is.
He doesn’t need us to recreate him in statues or to offer other human beings as sacrifices for him.
The opposite is true, in fact, because He throws- and has thrown- the greatest rope of hope into our darkest pits and has made the descent to be in our hopeless mess with us.
He scoops our motionless bodies off the mildewed ground and looking us square in the eyes, he tells us how much meaning we have- that we’re worth withstanding torture and death to save.
And because that’s the case, I’m on the side of uncontrollable belly laughter and pre-rainstorm aromas whether it makes sense in human words or not.