Chicago has a beautiful roadway called Lake Shore Drive. It is nearly 65 miles in length with a significant portion carrying you through the central portion of the city along the lakefront. I’ve enjoyed that drive at two pivotal points in my life. For approximately 2 years I would take my lunch break once a week and drive north on Lake Shore Drive to see a counselor. My marriage was falling apart and that one hour a week was helping me navigate the waters of grief as I went through a divorce.
Several years later I found myself driving south on Lake Shore Drive once a week to see a marvelous spiritual director near the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. This time my faith life was falling apart, or so I thought. What was really happening? My view of God was expanding and I was going through a faith crisis of sorts. I cried buckets of tears believing that if my view of God shifted and changed and expanded, my family would no longer accept me? My Christian workplace would no longer sync up with me theologically. I was experiencing a different kind of grief. My fears were unfounded, at least at that point in time.
Today, as I once again give in to grief, I’m learning that it can become a grace in my life. It’s only a grace, though, if I move toward what it requires of me. Grief elicits a response. We can choose what kind of response it will be. We can select tears and sadness only, experiencing a release of sorts. But that kind of external expression is somewhat exhausting, or we can prefer the deeper work that moves us toward a specific outcome. When I started to lean in to the struggle of grief, to be honest, I didn’t know what outcome I was moving toward.
One thing I learned is that helping others grieve comes with the territory. We rarely experience these personal difficulties in a vacuum. Whether it’s a job loss, as in my case, or a cancer diagnosis, or the death of a spouse, the person most directly affected isn’t the only one in distress. In my world, friends, family, and listeners are also struggling. Carrying the burden of helping others can actually delay our own healing. When a mom, with children still in the home, is suddenly widowed, she has to attend to those children and their grief before she can ever attend more deeply to her own. Shock is often an aid in helping her function and make it through the initial difficult days. In reality, helping others in their struggle puts yours on the back burner. Eventually we must choose to move it front and center for real growth to occur. It’s easy for me to bury my feelings but I felt God gently nudging me, at just the right time, to deal with my pain.
I’m a verbal processor. Whether I’m talking non stop when I’m with my spiritual director, or writing a virtual novel via text conversation, I usually learn things about myself by talking the story of my life out-loud. Because of those processing conversations, my husband and close friends saw that my faith life was shifting. However, admitting that to myself was a risky proposition. It meant I might have to act on what I’d admitted. If inner values don’t line up with external output, you’ll live in frustration. I was living in frustration.
I hold personal integrity as a high value, therefore my inner life needs to match my outer life. As my faith was shifting, I found I didn’t line up with the same theology I did 30 years ago, but I needed to uphold the theology of my employer, or simply avoid conversations on the air that directly contradicted my shifting personal beliefs. I knew I couldn’t continue to work in an environment where my beliefs had to be muted.
Today I get to live into my values. One important one for me is the belief that women can be in leadership in the church, including pastor and elder roles. Read Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight for more on the subject. I had also shifted to a more missional theology instead of dispensational theology. Did these two shifts take me outside the realm of orthodoxy? No, but it made it impossible for me to live with integrity in my work place.
I began to pray for God to move me on to something new. Some of you already know that story. (read the fuller story here) God answered, just not how I’d imagined. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who said “God answered my prayer exactly how I’d imagined.”
What I didn’t anticipate was the breadth of my grief. It was larger than just my job loss. It was a layered grief, and maybe that’s always the case when we are willing to lean in and go deeper. I experienced sadness over leaving parts of a theology I’d grown up with. As my belief system was shifting, I needed to move out of the world I’d been a part of that was addicted to certainty. I grew up in fundamentalism and when you choose to shift away from that, it’s a scary deal that can get you tossed out on your ear. Just ask Kathy Escobar or check out her book Faith Shift. Escobar’s book is insightful and has helped me tremendously this past year. My view of God was expanding, and while that’s an amazing and holy thing, those in the certainty camp don’t like to see it happen. Until I was let go from my job, I was tied to a theology via an umbilical cord that was supposed to feed me and keep me alive, but I found myself horribly malnourished. I was moving toward death, until that cord was cut. That’s where grace entered.
I always hated it when someone talked about difficult things in terms of God’s grace to us. To me, it felt cliche or overly spiritualized. But sometimes it’s just plain true. I can now think freely, question freely, doubt freely, explore and dialog freely. All because of a difficulty that has been a catalyst in my life. I recently began reading Janet Davis’s book on grief, Sacred Healing, and her words preached. I’m experiencing the book’s title. Janet writes in short chapters with poignant questions at the end of each essay. She told me that people in the throes of grief can’t read anything long. Bingo! These chapters are just the right length, at least for me.
Let me come back to the whole doubting, faith shifting thing. I see some of you squirming. Some of you are scared that Anita might not be stable in her faith. Some of you are wondering if I’m still a Christian? Let me say, “Yes!” But let me also add that I believe there is a more generous orthodoxy out there that we can adhere to. Some might be asking, “What’s happening in evangelicalism today?” I think a lot of healthy things are happening. I think a lot of unhealthy and downright scary things are also taking place. I am seeing thoughtful people questioning long held beliefs in a wise and measured way. Unfortunately, I’m also seeing the word evangelical highjacked to mean something I’m not sure I can use as a label these days.
I’ve received countless emails, private Facebook messages, and letters from people in the past 6 months sharing about their own deep sadness over my former radio program being cancelled. You know what else many have said? I’ll try to synthesize their communiqes into one basic message. “You were the one place I could come where it was O.K. to doubt and to say it out-loud. You were a safe place to discuss the deeper issues I had with my faith. Now where can I go with my questions, where will I find this kind of community?”
My prayer is that over the course of years I was on the air that we’ve offered resources and helped develop critical thinking skills, especially for women. Often in more conservative corners of the evangelical church, this is not overtly taught. I pray women are stronger today than when they started listening to my now defunct program and that they can stand on their own with feet firmly planted, feeding themselves, and receiving the same grace of grief that I’ve received.
If you are looking for further nourishment, I recommend my podcast Faith Conversations and Lori Neff’s podcast Everyday Prayer. Also, like the Friends of Midday Facebook page or the Anita Lustrea Facebook page where you can often read thoughtful and helpful postings.