I was misled. In fact, many of us were as we grew up in our mainline churches, listening intently to the flannel-graph stories of Moses, the little boy with the loaves and the fishes, and the wavy-haired Jesus who smiled through it all. It was all so nice and tidy and happy.
As we sat Indian-style sipping juice and nibbling on graham crackers, well-meaning adults told us all about life and God and how if we were good boys and girls and didn't kill anyone or disobey our parents, life would be happy. If we read our Bibles and prayed enough, life would be good. And we believed.
And then we grew up.
As grown-ups, some of us began to notice a few inconsistencies between the flannel-graph picture of life and the real thing. Bad things happened, sometimes even when we prayed and read our Bibles and didn't kill anyone. So we prayed and read more. Obeyed and tried harder. Sometimes this changed things. Sometimes it didn't.
In the latter situations, little niggling questions began to creep into our minds. What gives, we wondered. Where's the smiling, wavy-haired Jesus now? we questioned. Was it all just a nice story? we dared to whisper in quiet moments of desperation.
For me those moments occurred when I suffered a season of depression. And when I reached 30 and no traveling companion had yet shown up to journey through life with me. This isn't the happy life I was assured of, I observed with confusion. When this part of the story of life proved not to be true for me, I wondered what else had been inaccurate.
I didn't go through a crisis of faith at this point, though I watched a friend or two on parallel journeys endure serious doubts and wanderings. I almost wish I would have joined them. Perhaps the conclusion would have been more dramatic and life changing. Instead it was more like a big disillusioning pothole in my faith journey. Or a wrong turn that led me, like Dorothy on her trip to Oz, to a field of poppies where I stopped and took a long, lazy nap. Sleepwalking through life for a bit, if you will.
I never really questioned if God existed, just if he really cared for me and loved me as I'd sung so many times as a young girl. Jesus loves me, this I know. Well, based on the picture I'd had painted for me, I didn't know. I'd been doing everything I thought I was supposed to, and Jesus wasn't providing the happy endings I'd been told about.
So where do you go from this spot at the side of the road, lost and looking at your map with dubious distrust? From what I've seen, people at this crossroads take one of two routes: abandoning God altogether or digging deeper and finding a broader, more accurate picture of him. Personally, I knew I couldn't abandon God. Part of my soul still resonated with the psalmist, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?" (139:7).
So I began to read books: Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew and What's So Amazing About Grace? John Ortberg's The Life You've Always Wanted and God Is Closer Than You Think. Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. And a bigger, more complex and complete picture of Jesus began to emerge.
I also listened to friends who'd been through crises. I watched a friend who'd lost both her mom and her brother continue to praise her God. I attended a funeral of a colleague who'd died a long, slow death from cancer, and who praised God until the end. When they sang "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord" at the funeral service, a song that had brought him much comfort in his final months, I was struck by the lyrics: "Blessed be your name, When I'm found in the desert place, Though I walk through the wilderness, Blessed be your name."
No happy endings, but joy just the same. Messy stories and untidy details, but peace and hope in the journey. And as I looked back at those flannel-graph stories of my youth, I realized there was much messiness in the midst of most of the circumstances—we just skimmed over it as ones who know the end of each story. The woman who touched Jesus' hem to get miraculously and instantly healed endured years of pain and ostracism. Before Lazarus was called forth from the grave, there was grief and questions about why his friend Jesus wasn't hurrying to his rescue. And before a tiny Christ-child burst into the world with unexpected humility, there were centuries of longing and waiting and wondering.
Surprisingly, my messy journey through life, stumbling toward God and his will for me, has proven rich and rewarding. There are few Bible verses regarding we single folk and one of the most quoted refers to singleness as a gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). We sometimes joke that we really don't want this gift. And while I don't necessarily feel gifted at singleness, I feel it has come with a gift for me: a truer picture of my God. The disillusionment of my singleness got me to ask questions I might not have otherwise. Questions that helped me see God not as the mystical and cute E.T. of my youth encouraging me to "Be good." Or as Santa doling out gifts to good little girls and boys. But as a loving, mysterious, just, mighty, compassionate, and unfathomable deity who meets me in my joy and obedience and, more amazingly, in my fallenness and my messiness. And while he doesn't always yank me out of my mess, as I sometimes wish he would, he is always there with me whispering his love to me when I'm still enough to really listen. The gift of singleness for me has been a more authentic faith, and a better sense of "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ" (Ephesians 3:18).
I've realized we're not promised happy endings, just that we have an amazing Author of our stories—and that there will be themes of redemption and grace, if we'll accept them. Instead of happily ever after, we're offered the promise of 2 Corinthians 12:9: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." And anyway, we already have the only happy ending we really need. We celebrate that every Easter Sunday with hallelujahs for an empty tomb and a Risen Savior.
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