Sports Metaphors and Barricades to my Faith

Dannika Nash

Of all the confusing words in religion, “faith” is the one that frustrates me the most. I would wager my little brother that the word is used by Christians more than any other (save “God,” “Jesus,” possibly “Amen.”), but its actual definition is one that most Christians would be hard-pressed to identify. I can picture it now: Jay Leno takes his camera crew into the churches of America and asks them to define “faith,” this word they use so often, and they stutter and stammer and are embarrassed and the men in Jay’s audience bellow with laughter and the women chuckle and the Christians cringe but are good natured about it, thinking they could do better if they had to. If caught by Jay Leno, I wouldn’t do a better job. I have only vague ideas about the meaning of the word itself. I know it is what Christians prefer to use these days instead of the word “religion.” I know we are taught to have it and keep a tight hold on it. I know it is similar to optimism, and people use it to cope with death and sickness and failures. At its worst, it is pitted against science and philosophy in books titled things like “Keeping your Faith in College”[1] and “Science and Faith: None Can Live While The Other Survives.”[2] But lately, I’ve been trying to look past the worst of Christianity to the best. Because even though the worst is easy to yell about, the best is full of life and beauty and real love.[3] And I found out from a year of yelling that hopelessness makes for okay literature and bad poetry and real, scary meaningless depression in my actual life. So I’m giving the best a try, and changing the channel really quickly from the televangelists.

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I have a lot of problems with traditional Christianity. I’m a feminist who loves gay people and liberal politics and I’ve got some issues with authority. I was a communist once.[4] I’m fairly sure there are places in this world where those things and Christianity go together, but Midwestern America is not one of them. The more I’m reading books by Christian hippies though (Rob Bell, Anne Lamott, Rachel Held Evans), the more I feel like the church could actually be a place where I belong. I tried to be an atheist for a little bit last year, but I’m too scared of death. I had to put a little faith[5] into my understanding of this world to sustain the hope that death doesn’t mean death. That this world isn’t all there is. I’m still hesitant to call myself a Christian, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it, but Christians are looking less and less like women-hating science-deniers and more like protest-going-gender-including-beer-drinking real people that I want to be around. If that sounds like a compliment to you, you’re welcome.

travel-film-the-motorcycle-diaries

The thing is, as much as I really want to be a Christian sometimes, there are some major roadblocks that I can’t completely get past with my own will power. I’m not going to get into them; you can probably imagine what they are based on the information about myself I’ve already given you. Other religions are a big part of this barricade too, along with the concept of exclusive salvation and biblical authority. The point is that as hard as I try, I just can’t quite sign up for this thing completely. As liberal a church as I choose to attend, I probably can’t ever comply with a Christian creed without lying a little. I want to though, and I think that counts.

Mark tells the story of the father who brings his son to be healed by Jesus. Jesus tells him that all things can be done for those who believe. The father is frantic; you can feel his anxiety. “I believe; help my unbelief!”[6] It’s like he’s trying to slip a half-lie to Jesus at first, convincing him of something he didn’t know himself. But I have a feeling Jesus would be a hard person to lie to. I’m imagining him looking up in the middle of the father’s sentence, piercing him with the love and truth in his eyes. The father knew he needed this miraculous healing power, and he trusted Jesus not to freak out about his confession of doubt. Of course, he didn’t. He healed the kid. So I guess that’s where I am. I want to believe, God, help my unbelief. Heal whatever in my life needs to be healed to take my roadblocks away. The ball’s in your court, and I trust you to be the baller I hope you are. [7]

I like the book of John because he’s different and he strikes me as kind of a hippie with all of his love talk. He writes about Thomas after Jesus’s resurrection. All my life, I wondered why people kept naming their kids Thomas. The guy gets such a bad rap from tradition. “Doubting Thomas” had to see in order to believe. “Faith,” according to Saint Augustine, is to believe what you do not see. Thomas didn’t believe, or couldn’t. He saw Jesus die. He wasn’t meeting with the other disciples, waiting and hoping after Jesus died, he was off doing who-knows-what, moving on with his life and probably grieving the loss of the last three years. I like Thomas and I don’t think he’s the villain or the fool in this story. He needed more than what he got in order to change his life and his thinking, and he was still waiting for it when Jesus came to him. The thing about this story that I think is often ignored is Jesus’s reaction. Jesus doesn’t scorn Thomas and make him sit by while he rewards the other disciples that showed more faith. He meets Thomas in his doubt and he proves himself in exactly the way Thomas asks.[8] In my head, Thomas looked up at the God he thought he knew and said, “God, the ball’s in your court. I don’t know what you’re doing here, and I’m really having some problems with everything you just let us go through. I miss my friends but I’m not an idiot. I can’t just keep pretending I believe this when I don’t. If you really need me, you know me better than I do. Do whatever you’ve got to do.” This, I think, is courage. And that’s why I think people still name their kids Thomas. The guy was real, and whether we want to admit it or not, everyone is going to have moments where they either talk to God about their doubt or lie to God about their doubt. My campus pastor told me that God is always going to be more okay with our doubt than Christians are, and I trust God to be stronger than Christians and stronger than my doubt. So if that’s faith, I guess I’ve got a little of it.


[1] Given to me by a well-meaning relative after I described to her the fun I had during my school’s Harry Potter Week.

[2] I completely made that last one up, but it sounds realistic doesn’t it? Like something that was written in 1989 that was found on a bookshelf of a Sunday school room in a small-town Lutheran Church in Iowa? The cover would maybe have a monkey-looking human holding a bible with a confused look on its face? If I ever lost steam on my current career path, I may find success writing polemical evangelical pamphlets for church foyers. Ironically my made-up title contains a Harry Potter reference. 

[3] I think; I hope.

[4] I watched that movie “The Motorcycle Diaries” with Gael Garcia Bernal.

[5] Cringe

[6] Mark 9:24

[7] Still trying to wrap my head around the exact sports situation that metaphor implies. Like, is he on the other team? Or my team? Why is he in a different court than me? I only played one year of 5th grade basketball but I have a friend who’s pretty good at it so I figured I’m qualified to use the metaphor. I play tennis but I’m not that good. Wait, is this a tennis metaphor? Like the ball’s in my court, I’m going to serve it to you? Or something? The whole big green area is called a court, though, I think. I’m going to leave all of that alone, someone just call me and tell me. Baseball season’s coming up, Go Cubs Go! The word “baller”‘s still cool right? I heard a guy say it yesterday, it sounded cool.

[8] John 20:24, NRSV

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Sports Metaphors and Barricades to my Faith

19 thoughts on “Sports Metaphors and Barricades to my Faith

  1. Samantha says:

    “I feel that we too often focus only on the negative aspect of life – on what is bad. If we were more willing to see the good and the beautiful things that surround us, we would be able to transform our families. From there, we would change our next-door neighbors and then others who live in our neighborhood or city. We would be able to bring peace and love to our world, which hungers so much for these things.”
    -Mother Teresa

    Read this and thought of this post… keep looking for the best in everyone and every group and every thing. I love to see that in you!

  2. caodonn says:

    I’m so happy to have stumbled upon your writing! It’s refreshingly honest, compassionate, and from all the response I’ve heard… makes me and others feel a lot less alone. THANK YOU!

  3. As someone who grew up going to church every Sunday morning and night and Wednesday night and VBS and attending a private elementary school but then later took religions classes in college and thought, maybe there isn’t One Way, I realy enjoy your posts. I also enjoy liberal politics and a little “sin” in my life. Have you ever attended a Unitarian Universalist church? I am part of one, and they are non-denominational; they borrow from multiple world religions. (Because I’m well-versed in Christian beliefs and practices, but what if I can learn and benefit from others, too?) I don’t know if any are in your area, and all of them are different (services at my church vary from week to week, it’s never the same!), but here’s what I can guarantee about UU churches: The church may not be the right fit for you, but no one there will ever tell you that YOU are not the right fit for the CHURCH. Everyone is accepted no matter what and expected to treat others (even those outside the church) with respect and equality.

  4. What a lovely awesome and thoughtful blog you have! Came for the “Dear Church,” post, stayed for this. Thanks for your time and gentle way of expressing interesting and arresting thoughts!

  5. John says:

    Great post. Read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. If you’re willing to hear him out, I think you might like it.

  6. Ash says:

    Found your blog via a friend’s link to your Open Letter. I just wanted to say thank you — which sounds weird, but you seem to have found the words that I’ve been searching for. I hope you keep writing/blogging because I think you have the ability to speak a little truth into a world that’s frustratingly full of lies.

  7. Lauren says:

    I just want to encourage you in your struggle to understand “faith” and to learn who God really is and what the Gospel means. No matter what happens in your life, no matter what people say to you or what you see happening around you, don’t give up on seeking out ultimate truth. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me.” I encourage you to dig into the scriptures and hold onto the things that make sense (many things probably won’t). If you find out something about God that isn’t what you hoped for, figure out what needs to change. Because God never will. Keep trusting and keep learning. Your Savior loves you more than you could ever imagine, and He wants you to know Him.

  8. Hi Dannika – I just found your blog today and read a few of your posts. I think I am a Christian who fits all your criteria, and I have extensively studied theology, other world religions, and the ancient worldview/writing of the Bible. I am also a huge fan of Harry Potter and the Cubs. So if you want to chat let me know. 🙂

  9. Amanda says:

    I just found your blog also through the “Dear Church” post. I’m a young adult whose recently come into my “faith” in the last few months–yet as strong as many of my convictions are about that faith and how much I want to follow Christ, I face the same roadblocks and doubts. There are certain things that I can’t quite justify or haven’t figured out. And I believe the toughest part is really tuning into what the God’s truth is versus what I, as a human, WANT to believe is the truth. Yet despite all of these things I think your writing is fantastic and it’s admirable/good that you are asking these questions! Because the answers to those questions can and will determine SO many things (as I’m sure you know)! My only advice (if I can give any) is just continue to question and pray for God to reveal himself to you, because he does love you and he will. Just keep in mind that he’s got it all planned out so it may not be when or how you expect, but it will happen!

  10. Ben H says:

    I really appreciate a person willing to live out their doubts and struggles. There is a God out there who loves us anyway despite our doubts, so keep your eyes open, keep searching, keep asking questions to God and others.
    The reason why faith is so difficult to identify is that it cannot be measured. What increments can we use? Weight? Height? Length? How can one truly say, “I have more faith than this other person”? It just cannot be done.
    By the way, God has mad baller skillz. Yes, Skillz with a “z.”

  11. It sounds like everyone’s already saying that they found you through the Open Letter and that they’re grateful for what you’re writing. But I have to say, I literally broke down crying while reading this. I feel very much the same way that you do – socially and politically liberal, still desperately wanting to have faith. And I’ve been dying for a community of Christians who are asking similar questions to those I am asking. I’m new to WordPress, and I don’t know how much community it affords, but I’ll definitely be reading your blog at least.

  12. TK says:

    I grew up in the Lutheran Church in the 60’s. Sunday School, Confirmation, the whole deal. I have read the Bible from cover to cover. Was married by my childhood pastor in 1976. Became a geologist. Became an atheist…probably more of an agnostic, but non-religious overall. I respect the beliefs of others to the extent that they do not impact others.

    I could not resolve the conflict of needing to take the Word as literal truth and the teaching that the Word is metaphor. In my mind, it cannot be both, as that smacks of situational religiosity….making it say what you want it to say to fit your need or support your argument.

    A case in point. The Word tells us that the earth was created whole in seven days. Literal truth or metaphor open to interpretation? If literal truth, no more correct than the sun revolving about the earth. If metaphor, OK, but it cannot be both.

    Another case in point. Cain killed Abel and was thrown out of the Garden. Got married. Married to whom? Adam, Even Cain and Abel were the only ones around at the time. So…literal truth, or metaphor? It cannot be both ways.

    Finally, God as an artifact of Man. The world is full of regions, and while they all have one or more Gods, they vary considerably in their outlook and rules about living….try to sell a bacon cheeseburger in Israel or a pork loin sandwich in Mecca. Given all their differences and conflicting dogma, which is right. None of them (at least that I know of) provide or tolerate the the others, and many label others as infidels only worthy of death. So…which is the right and true religion. Whose god (or group of gods) is the right God? There are lots more non-Christians than Christians…does the majority rule?

    This leads me to the inescapable position that Gods are artifacts of Man, created to answer the unanswerable questions of the day. The common thread may be afterlife….the kinda ultimate unanswerable.

    I am interested in your take on this.

  13. Dannika,

    First, let me say that your ability to write, get your point across, and to do it well (and beautifully) gives me hope that this art form is not completely dead and dying. (I would love to talk to you about your schooling and how you managed NOT to become the statistic of the stereotypical college student who arrives not knowing how to write and do simple math -OK, I am assuming you can do math). But I digress.

    Faith, to me, is believing in something awesome and good despite of our doubts, our fears of being wrong (or considered stupid), and the contradictions that we see or perceive.

    Imagine standing at the edge of the high dive and looking down into your mother’s face and her open arms. You trust that her coaching and love for you is big enough to help you take that first leap into the water. Despite knowing that you might hurt yourself or get water up your nose, you also are confident that whatever happens in the moments after you spring up and out that this wonderful, loving person down below – that person that you trust with all your heart – has already thought of all the possible outcomes and is ready to do whatever needs to be done next whether that be helping you to the edge of the pool, thumping your back to help you get the water out of your throat, or just shouting (or whispering) encouragement as you achieve your goal. Faith is that moment right before your toes lose contact with the diving board.

    Faith is personal. We cannot achieve anything through someone else’s faith (except Jesus’).

    I have been where you are. And what I can tell you is this: Even in the midst of my rejecting the things (not all, but a lot) I had been taught growing up, God continued to speak to me, guide me, and protect me (oh my, did He protect me). But what was missing was a relationship. It took a lot of life experiences, soul searching, and studying (reading, praying, talking) to feel comfortable with the fact that my relationship with God was different than what many other Christians describe as their relationship. You mentioned Thomas, and this is how I reconcile myself being different.

    Jesus chose his disciples purposefully. They were different with their own strengths and weaknesses. Their personalities ran the gamut from angry, judgmental, hasty, doubting, intellectual, you name it. Jesus must have needed (and loved) all those personalities to spread the gospel. Unfortunately, I think too many Christians focus on Paul and instead of trying to emulate Jesus or even his chosen first disciples, they actually set Paul up as someone to almost worship (Paul and I would have had words, but I think we could have still been friends).

    It also took me time to realize that I couldn’t blame Jesus for the way Christians behaved. I understand that today, perhaps more than in the past, you have to have tremendous courage and patience to be part of a church if you are the least bit progressive. Even though we may not be faced with overt hatefulness, there is always the undercurrent of judgment and the warning to not “accept” the sin even though we are allowed to “love the sinner”. This is one of those contradictions that I have decided to leave at the feet of Jesus.

    Honestly, I don’t think most Christians know how to do this when it comes to gays. They can spend every Sunday ministering to thieves and murderers at the penitentiary and shake the hands of these individuals, but they can only give lip service to practicing the same type of God Love for gays. I understand that being gay is foreign to most people and it makes them uncomfortable. Less understandable is how Christians rally around anti-gay as a way of distinguishing themselves from “liberals” or the secular world.

    I continue to try and follow Christ’s example while also being respectful of other people’s beliefs; both Christian and non-Christian. I must tell you, however, that I am more inclined to call myself a disciple of Christ rather than a Christian. Christian today includes so many hateful people (and I don’t mean people that believe being gay is wrong).

  14. Thanks so much for your passion and honesty about spirituality, Church and what our world needs right now. I’m a Christian who has worked at the boundary between Christianity and Buddhism, between Jesus and Buddha, for four decades. I’ve fund this dialogue to be thrilling and endlessly creative, especially where these two traditions intersect with the arts. Check out our Internet sanctuary at: http://www.emptybell.org . Blessings, Robert

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