I want to go right to the well known story in the beginning of the book of Mark where a paralytic man is lowered into a home by four of his friends who had broken a hole into the roof above the crowd. They know Jesus is teaching there and the crowd was too pressing to enter in by the door, so in hopes that Jesus will heal this friend, they climb up above and do something that I imagine was most unexpected and unconventional. I have read or heard that story so many times in my life, but it wasn’t until recently when I stopped to really consider the scene that I was a bit taken back.
Think again of the image: think of these people climbing on top of the roof while carrying their friend on his sick bed, about to dig a hole and interrupt a large crowd, and not least, the most important and sought after man in the city. I wonder if they hesitated, I wonder if they thought they should turn back, that it was just a silly idea. But then, I marvel at their bravery as they do the thing they must have felt they should. They broke a hole in that roof and sent their friend right in to land at the feet of Jesus. The reaction of Christ to this act is stunning to me. He does not question, he does not tell the men they should have just waited outside the door for later, he does not lecture, He simply accepts their offering of faith without question. He heals the man, first from his sins, then in his body and the man rises, picks up his bed and stands.
I see myself in two parts of this story. First, I see myself in the group on the roof. I see myself hoping to come to the feet of Christ and sometimes doing it in ways that are not prescribed or by the book. Secondly, I see myself as part of the people pressed into that home to hear Christ. I wonder so much about those people. How did they react when the man was lowered? Were they upset that someone had interrupted Jesus? Did they feel like the paralytic man didn’t deserve to come right to the feet of Christ when they had waited a long time to see him and then had been crowded into a small space to hear him? How do I think of and treat people who are coming to Christ in ways different than my own? It’s possible they were harsh, but also, and maybe more likely the people in that crowd were nothing but kind and patient. What if everyone in that small room, gathered around Christ as he taught and then healed the man, and what if they celebrated in unison at the miracle they were a part of. What if their spirit contributed to the miracle? What if they marveled at the many diverse paths that lead to Christ? What if they made that space a holy room of acceptance and kindness and celebration that one of their brothers was healed, and because he was, they too might be?
Simultaneously, I see myself in both parts of this story.
When I think of myself as the friends on the roof, I wonder what experiences got them to that place, I wonder what emotions they brought with them as they hatched their plan, then followed through with it. I think of my own spiritual landscape over the past decade. I think of how my own experience has not stayed in the beautiful, uncomplicated, untouched meadow that carried me for my youth. I regard that meadow as some of my most happy memories and carry pieces of it with me. I love it because it made me much of who I am and I return to it as often as I can, but as I’ve grown, my spirit has required me to pack up and leave that meadow and set out on a long and rocky trail that sometimes feels to difficult to continuing hiking. At times this trail has felt steep and impassible, and at times this trail has wound me through some of the darkest forests I’ve encountered where everything that once felt so familiar and sure was not there. But also, on this trail I came to unexpected, dazzling waterfalls I felt were created just for me, I came across many travelers also navigating a spiritual landscape that was new, often we hug in passing or hike together for a time. Parts of this trail are unmapped. I stumble, pause to marvel at a field of wildflowers, sometimes feel defeated and sit on a rock to cry, but I’ve see myself, and my trail mates (you) carry on bravely.
This metaphor of my own personal spiritual landscape is perhaps just a different way of describing what many of us have experienced in one way or another, or may experience in the future. Something we might call of crisis of faith, or a faith crisis. Over the past decade (which I realize is a long time to not have much figured out) I used that phrase many times to describe the state of my spiritual life, but there came a point, particularly in this past year or two when I realized that I could no longer ascribe the word crisis to the ideas and hopes that felt so vital to my spirit. Crisis insinuates that I am the victim of a circumstance beyond my control and it was difficult to gain traction in that mindset. I could not survive in the church if I continued to think of my state of questioning, sometimes disagreeing with church leaders, sometimes disbelief, explorations, re-building faith in a new way and learning what and how to come to Christ, as a crisis.
At a certain point I had to make the choice to re-name my spiritual journey, instead of calling it a crisis, both aloud, to myself and to God, I now simply call it my story. Over the past year, I have worked hard to respect my story and trust that even in its many imperfections, it is a valid and useful story and it is worth telling. I have stopped coercing my story to be something it is not, or forcing it to be like someone else’s. The friends on the roof in the first story then become so valuable to me because I see them there, with quite the story to tell, and Christ does not for even a moment distrust their intuition or intention. In fact, He loves them dearly, does exactly the thing they want most, he heals them, he blesses them. I have felt this same love and acceptance from Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, in very quiet and personal ways, in prayer, in song, in my children, on walks outside, teaching nursery children, or in advocating for change.
I think then of the second group in the Mark story, I think of how their stories deserve that same respect and kindness, even if they would never consider climbing on the roof. Something real and valuable brought them to that house to also be at the feet of Christ. I want to love this more traditional part of my own story as well. For all of us, it is a Christ-like attribute to assume that people are trying the best they can. I know I am a better person when I give empathy, and I am better for having received it. As members of the body of Christ, we are responsible for creating that space not only of acceptance, but of joy and encouragement for our brothers and sisters and the stories they are working so hard to live well. We have to stand up for our own story as well, give it credence, take accountability for it, be kind and devoted to it.
In several other versions of this piece I wrote a sort of apology saying that I understand what it is like to be the one who feels your story is different, who is struggling to regain the perfect belief you once had, but those lines didn’t settle right. They didn’t seem to be the message I was supposed to deliver. So while, yes, I know well the pain that accompanied the experience of my own spiritual scaffolding coming down, and I know well that many others experience this similarly. While I know some of the genuine difficulty and sadness as I’ve traversed the unknown paths of a spiritual life that does not look exactly as I once imagined it would, I don’t want to end simply with a message of sympathy. I want, ultimately, to end with one of celebration. I want to say that I have found deep beauty and awe in accepting that I do not have everything figured out and I may not ever in this life. I have found it liberating to know that I care enough to disagree at times. I have found support in trying to make things better in my own church. The freedom to write my own story makes me feel strong. I have found that my voice does matter simply because I am a part of the gospel of Christ.
My husband told me that he used to not write in his journal about times of doubt or difficulty because he didn’t want to give our children the idea or example that he lacked faith. But not long ago he told me he’d changed his mind and that he does write about those times because it is vital that our children know that faith and doubt can and do exist in the same mind. A story told in honesty will do more to bring people to Christ than one told in distortion, or one not told at all.
It feels imperative that my children know that like Moroni says, ‘all things must fail, but charity never faileth.’ So yes, our leaders may fail us, our church may fail us, policies may fail us, expectations and hopes may fail us, but charity, the pure love of Christ will not ever fail us.
And so, if you feel lost on those trails of this landscape and don’t know that you can keep going, I would encourage you to take a moment, celebrate where you are and look around, it’s likely there are trees starting to bud with new blossoms, the trickle of a clear stream, birds singing, other hikers nearby if you need to lean on them, the warmth of a spirit that will not leave you alone. And then, I would keep going. The friends of the paralytic man on the roof were about to do something big and brave, but I can imagine there were many moments along the way that they thought to turn back and not follow through. I’ve learned I find the most peace when I am listen for, speak, and live the things that resonate in the deepest places in my heart. Christ is waiting on the other side of that roof, on the other side of the place that feels scary. He is ready and willing to accept that offering and eager to heal whatever it is we need healing from. It is also likely that there is a roomful of people who will be so happy and proud to see us, however we have come. I imagine them celebrating. I imagine them rejoicing for me and for you. What we are in the work of doing is incredibly hard and demanding, but far more, it is joyful, it is the most joyful. That is the message I feel I am supposed to tell you, that wherever you are in this wild and unpredictable landscape, there is joy to be had, that you will not be left alone, no matter where your path leads you.
As I continue on my own hike up and over the rocky traverses, I know that joy will not be the only feeling I experience. There will be laughter, failed experiments, tenderness, grace, honesty, mercy, happiness. I know now that there will also be sadness, confusion, disappointment, disagreement, darkness, even anger at times, but I also know that all those things are vital to my story. I go on with the knowledge that now and again my trail will lead me to the top of a mountain and I will be so glad that I was brave enough to leave the meadow where I began. I will look out across the expanse of the world that I live in and up at the glittering sky of stars and realize that to arrive here is not to be finished. The journey to this place required all of my effort, and even then, I could not reach this view on my own. To be here is not easy, but it is so much grander than I could have ever expected.