Thursday, January 12, 2017

I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

One of the loneliest places I have found to be is the Church. As a kid, I found that my questions were found to be unwelcome and, therefore, I began to stop asking and to simply internalize them. Feeling that there was something wrong in asking what I did not understand (and, to be honest, what they may not have understood but did not want to admit that they didn't), I began to grow tired of Bible stories, which typically focused on subjects like Noah's ark presented as if it were merely the story of a floating zoo and not of a God who wipes out all but one family from the face of the earth. I struggled connecting this wrathful Old Testament God to the one of Christ in the New Testament. What someone needed to understand was that my asking questions have always been less about doubt and more about comprehending more deeply what I am being told is Truth with a capital "T." Since my questions were unwelcome, I felt the same and, when my parents allowed me to walk to the class alone, I discovered a small room that was a library of sorts. Being an avid reader, I was delighted to find that the door was not locked. I looked around, saw nobody, opened the door and popped inside. not wanting to get caught, I did not turn on the lights. 

Browsing the shelves, which were filled with mainly theology books and some old hymnbooks, I was happy to find a copy of Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. Seating myself where nobody could see me through the thin window of the door, I would read with great glee, Silverstein's irreverent poems. I had to stifle my laughs so that I didn't dare get caught.  Whenever I could each Sunday, I would ditch class and spend my time reading alone, which I always preferred anyway. Why the Sunday school teachers never asked my parents where I was made me think they were probably relieved when I didn't show up. 

It was with great disappointment that I came to the end of both books and I hoped to find another like them. But no such look. I did spot a thin volume that, to this day, I have no idea why it drew my attention or why I took it down from the shelf, but it was a selection of poems by Emily Dickinson. Now I had never heard of her, but when I sat down with this slender volume in my lap, it fell open to the lines, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

I was hooked. 

This was exactly how I felt to most of the world. I was shy, introverted bookish kid who was lousy at sports and even worse at socialization. So I felt like I had a bosom friend and a companion of spirits when I continued reading:

Are you - Nobody - too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

I somehow knew what she meant and understood that this was a secret between me and Emily (or Saint Emily as I would later call her). 

How dreary - to be - Somebody!
How public - like a Frog - 
To tell one's name - the livelong June
To an admiring Bog!

As I grew older, Saint Emily never left me; in fact, it was as if she were my closest friend. Like myself, she struggled with the Church. We were, both of us, at best, believing unbelievers (coming from one of the most honest prayers in all of scripture, "I believe! Help me in my unbelief"). "We both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble," she wrote. Our believing must be very, very nimble after all these years.

Yet it remains a struggle for me to not feel the greatest loneliness in the place where I am supposed to feel the deepest communion and fellowship. Most of the time, I still feel like I am a pebble in many people' shoes. 

One person, who knows me and has read what I've written over the years, and they said, "I think you love the Lord . . ." with such unsurety. I am often viewed with everything from distant politeness to open disapproval. I am a puzzlement to some because of what I express, especially in regards to the poor, refugees, social justice, egalitarianism, and even that it's okay to doubt and question because that is the only way one has a living, breathing faith and is not a dead idol of dogma. 

"I dwell in possibility," Saint Emily said and I agree. May my life be one of holy expectation. Of unknowing because God cannot be God if I can truly understand and comprehend Him. He must always be more infinite than my finite mind and questions can possess. 

There is much of me I hide from other churchgoers, who are supposed to be my brothers and sisters in Christ. Often, like Emily, I think, "I am one of the lingering bad ones," though she and I both ponder and wonder and contemplate and reflect on God, Christ, scripture, The Church, and eternity probably more than most of the good ones do. We cannot and do not take any of the doctrine lightly or simply. Not to question, but to merely accept, is not faith. It is merely acquiescence. 

"The Soul selects her own Society," Saint Emily wrote and, "shuts the Door - to her divine Majority." And she stopped attending church with her family, but kept the Sabbath at home. 

Unlike Emily, I joined a church and have been a member of it for a good many years and, yet, even now, I still feel like an outsider in it. I have grown up in very Conservative Pentecostal or Evangelical churches where they spoke of the Bible as "The Word" (which is incorrect since it is Christ who is The Word, as In the beginning was the Word . . . ) and speak of it in terms that, and I have heard pastors and preachers say this, that "even the punctuation is inspired by God." 

Faith was very, very personal for Emily and I understand that, though I also know that we are meant to be a part of a church for koininia (communion, fellowship), for corporate worship and to be a part of the body of Christ. It is a real and deepening struggle for me. More often, I find my mind drifting. I often have more connection to theologians and pastors that I read (Eugene Peterson, Frederick Buechner, Dallas Willard) and listen to on podcasts (Brian Zahnd being one of them or Seminary Dropout) or online through blogs or social media. 

If only I had a friend,one friend, like Saint Emily to confide in and who could confide in me with our struggles, doubts, and questions. The poet Marianne Moore said of Miss Dickinson, "She saw no comfort in refusing to question that about which she wished most to be sure." And I heartily agree and holler, "Comrade!"  

The Bible is a sacred text so often rendered lifeless in the preaching and teaching of it. There is often such surety and certainty in its meaning that so many no longer wrestle with its depths or struggle with its paradoxes and contradictions or meditate on the metaphors, which is the only way one can speak of God. The Bible has been cleaned up and made into applications instead of allowing the dirt and grit and sharpness of it to truly awaken one to Spirit and psalter. Passages have been neutered by over familiarity and we stop really looking and see, instead, what we want to be there, instead of being stunned and shocked by what truly is. The kingdom is not just meant to be some distant, future place we go after we die, but is meant to be lived out here, that we are to strive for "on earth as it is in heaven." 

There is no stillness. No silence. No allowing of God to speak. 

Too often our churches are filled with noise and contemporary worship songs that are often shallow theology. Too much worshiptainment.

Why don't we approach worship as Saint Emily wrote, "The soul should always stand ajar. Ready to welcome the ecstatic experience." 

Where is the awe and wonder in our worship?

Where is the song of our salvation sung from trembling lips of gratitude and humility as if coming before an all consuming fire or river?

"Where Thou art," Emily wrote, "that is home."

I have often heard people speak of biblical figures they want to meet in heaven (David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul), but I long to find that diminutive "chestnut haired" girl with amber eyes. I imagine I will find her in a garden - where else would she be? And I will smile and we can both say, "Despite with others thought, we are both here. We are both home."

Until that day, like her, I will continue to "Tell it slant" and, in the telling, remain solitary. Poets and prophets are lonely people, though I would never dare consider myself to be among the company of either. Too many people think themselves prophets when all they really are is a pain in the . . . I'll leave it at that. But I will continue to struggle in The Church, to find belonging, but maybe I'm not meant to. Maybe being the outsider, the Nobody, is a gift. Outsiders are the ones who remind us that it is in the margins that Christ is found. And, ultimately, what matters is that I belong in Him.

Book recommendation on the subject:


  1. Thanks again for your post, Elliott. I think Emily is a worthy companion on the spiritual journey. I remember reading somewhere that she said "Consider the lilies" was the only commandment she never broke. She understood wonder! I think she would understand my daughter, too: she is 18 and has Asperger's, and she selects her own society and lives largely in a small world of family and books and her online worlds where she explores autism and other issues. It's different -- but if there's one thing my kids have taught me, it's that we don't all have to be the same.

    I'm positive there are kindred spirits out there who feel a lot like you do about spiritual things. It's hard when you don't know any of them personally. But when you find your fellow pilgrims, you know it. Thanks for sharing your reflections; I get a lot out of them.

    1. I want to thank you for taking your time and throughtfully commenting. It means a great deal that you would write to let me know, not only that you like what I'm writing, but, even more so, sharing with me of your own life and about your precious daughter. I also love reading your blog.