By Margo Catts
Faith and religion are hard topics to discuss across differences of belief. We’re tender and vulnerable there, and hold our beliefs with terrible care. It feels safe to talk with people who we believe share our beliefs—or at least with those upon whom we find it easy to project our beliefs—when we can relax that grip just a little. In its own way, it’s also easy to talk with people we know don’t share our beliefs. Our guards are safely up, that basket of beliefs is held close, polite rejection mechanisms are ready for any direct challenge.
But, ah, then there are the people in between. The ones who share our beliefs…but not completely. Or the ones who used to share our beliefs…and then rejected them. The ones who know everything we do…and then a little more. How is it, exactly, that we can engage with those who are best equipped to do us the most harm?
Like many of you, I was devastated when I learned, one year ago, of the policy that formalized special conditions of church membership for LGBTQ adults and their children. This church has been my spiritual home for my entire adult life. It has provided the framework for my family. I have been blessed by service given and received. But on this my soul refused. Men who identified themselves as God’s chosen servants insisted that I follow one path. The tools of personal discernment I have always been encouraged to use to seek light and truth and love, to govern my daily walk with my fellowman, told me God lay down another. There was no way to walk both at once. The struggle to find my way called upon me to set down my basket of beliefs, reexamine all that I had previously taken on trust, and identify which items—if any—I should carry with me moving forward. The past year has included hundreds of hours of study, much prayer, many tears, and untold sleepless nights.
My struggle, while personal and important to me, is nothing special. It’s the same everywhere. Whether you are an orthodox Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, a Mormon, a Catholic, Democrat or Republican, or really, really into a certain kind of furniture distressing, the more tightly any group holds to a set of ideas as truth, the harder it is for people to love and help each other when their beliefs change. I have many dear friends who have stood by me through this transition, and in time I found safe places to examine information and process my thoughts without shame, judgment, fear, or correction, but it has been a deep disappointment that I found no such place within the institution I served for so long.
It doesn’t have to be that way. I want to believe we can do better. I want to believe we are better than our fear—which is what’s really the source of all the trouble. Changing belief doesn’t have to divide us. There are many, many around us, also wrestling through the dark night of the soul, mourning faith undone, fearing changed relationships, and feeling alone. There will be more. They don’t want to be fixed. They want to be heard, loved, and accepted. They want to feel safe to express what’s in their hearts and minds without being marginalized, judged, labeled.
But we know why those things happen, don’t we? Changing beliefs in someone with whom you shared one heart and mind—or thought you did—are threatening and destabilizing, and imposing distance is simple self-protection. We start looking the other way. We avoid each other. We want to sort out what’s happening, but do it by talking to others. Anything but risk speaking directly to the people involved. Fear, on both sides of the relationship, ends up being the tectonic force that shoves us away from each other so that our paths seem to run along the edges of entirely different continents.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” (1 John 4:18)
So let me propose a deal to help us hold onto each other: If someone you love wants to discuss hairy things you don’t want to know about, you don’t have to. It’s fine. A person who loves you will accept the boundaries you set. But in exchange, if you draw a line, you need to extend love and trust to those who say that what’s beyond it—which you have not seen for yourself—is real, and is causing pain. They’re not experiencing the consequences of being offended or lazy or deceived, of wanting to sin, of not being committed enough, of seeking an easy way out. We all need to acknowledge that the beliefs we hold so tightly are really, truly, beliefs. Others can believe differently.
Acknowledging that reality can be huge. “I’ve seen that you seem to be going through something big. That must be hard.” Or for those whose beliefs are changing and who see the bewilderment among their families and friends, just “I see you at a loss of how to engage with me. That must be hard.” That’s all. That’s not awkward or frightening. That’s love.
Divisions created by fear can narrow and disappear when people on both sides acknowledge that both are seeking truth, integrity, and meaning. As fear drives us apart, perfect love pulls all paths together. Love that assumes the best. Love that believes God speaks equally to us all. Love that doesn’t just mouth the words, “I love you,” but says in word and deed, “I trust you.”
It has been one year, now, since the morning I woke to news that dropped me to my knees in tears, my basket of beliefs broken, the contents scattered. One year since the paths before me parted ways. I am changed, as I should be. I have grieved many losses, but am grateful for many more gains. I am wiser. My spirituality is deeper and more self-reliant. I hold my beliefs more lightly, more hopefully, and without fear. But from the beginning, I knew there wasn’t really much question about what path I would follow. My feet have to go where my soul demands. I cannot do anything else.
image by Margo Catts