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Breaking up with God

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I met God in the Catholic Church and spent most of my childhood trying to get God to love me. I loved God from afar, like you might love a teacher or your best friend's older brother. I watched God carefully. I studied God, believing the symbols, creeds, and rituals of Catholicism were a code that might reveal how to get God to love me, or at least notice me.

The priests preached about the Trinity, but God seemed more like Twins to me, a mean Twin and a nice Twin. The mean Twin loved me conditionally, unpredictably, based on what I did or said or what grades I got or what secret rules I managed to follow or break; the nice Twin loved me like I longed to be loved--unconditionally, abundantly, just for being me. I paid more attention to the mean Twin because he treated me like I was used to being treated. I made excuses for him and believed it was my fault he behaved the way he did. I tried to please him the way I tried to please everyone in my life, by being good, by performing, by being the person I believed he wanted me to be.

The loving Twin was gentle and patient, and sometimes I listened to him, and sometimes I even believed him. You are my beloved, this Twin said. With you I am well pleased.

I forgot about God in college, and when I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles to teach elementary school in Compton. Teaching, I finally learned what it meant to be white, to have privilege. I learned that wealth and poverty are connected. I learned about racism and structural inequality. And at the Episcopal church I started going to, I learned that God had something to say about all of that.

I couldn't get enough of the God I found at that church. I went to church three times a week. I joined small groups. I led small groups. I showed up early on Sunday mornings for adult education programs. I cried through the liturgy, especially at the communion rail when I was kneeling and being fed. I hung out after church at coffee hour on the lawn, which was covered with rainbow flags and red ribbons and fliers about anti-gun protests and marches on city hall. Most of my friends were from church, and we talked about Jesus, about how he wasn't our personal savior exactly, but more like a revolutionary asking us to do good work, waiting for us to make the world a better place.

People gave me multiple copies of the Book of Common Prayer, big leather volumes I stacked by my bed with lots of ribbons to mark my place. "God really loves you, Sarah," they told me. "I know," I said, smiling. I talked to God all the time. I prayed while I drove on the highway to Compton and while I roller bladed on the beach after school. I recited "Night Prayer" from the New Zealand Prayer Book every night. For those beloved of God are given gifts even while they sleep, I said, and I couldn't believe I found a God who loved me all the time, even when I was asleep.

I believed God had called me to be a priest, so I moved across the country to attend Harvard Divinity School. In Cambridge, being around other people who loved God as much as I did was invigorating. I loved having friends who talked about God over beers. I loved arguing about doctrine. My relationship with God deepened. God seemed to unfold in front of me, to bloom, and I bloomed right back. There was more to God than I imagined, so much more than I ever learned in church, and I wanted to know everything. I immersed myself in theology, reading everything from John Calvin to Jon Sobrino. I discovered feminist and womanist and liberation and Black theology. I took classes on Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi. I fell in love with preaching. In my sermons, I quoted Mary Oliver and Patty Griffin and the Dead Sea Scrolls more than I quoted the Bible, but no one seemed to mind. I even won the school's preaching contest.

I stopped going to church on Sundays. I felt like I was with God all the time, so I didn't think I needed to go somewhere special to be with God, and the God I knew didn't spend much time in churches in Boston, anyway. I rented a studio space in a community art center and started painting on Sundays instead, abstract landscapes, wax on wood. Soon after that I found the closest thing I ever had to a guru, the theologian Gordon Kaufman. He told me that God is serendipitous creativity, that God is mystery, and, when I was painting, it felt true.

Even though I didn't go to church anymore, I still wanted to be a priest, so I got a job at an Episcopal church in a suburb of Boston and entered the ordination process. I didn't recognize the God being worshipped at that church. People bullied God, used God to do their dirty work, and God went right along with it. There was a mean streak to God, and when God was with these people he seemed very judgmental. Some people gave me a hard time for being a woman who wanted to be a priest and an even harder time for being a feminist. Having me around cramped their style. They thought I was a drag. They made fun of me, of the way I talked and walked and dressed, but I didn't fight back. I let them haze me. I tried to fit in.

I translated all the things I heard at church about God into words I could understand, and I translated all the things I believed about God into words people at the church could understand. I metaphorized. I improvised. I bent. I crammed myself into the small spaces allowed for me in the liturgy, in between pews, under the altar. My guru reminded me that I was in a cage of my own making, that the door was open and always had been open, but I was stubborn, and I closed the lid, hard. He talked with me through the cage, but I didn't listen. I tried to become the person I thought God needed me to be so God would stay with me, so God would choose me, so God wouldn't leave. Deep down I believed I was nothing without him.

I couldn't stand being around God at church, but when we were alone, things were still good. I was sure the version of God I loved was the real God. I was like the wife who convinces herself she's the only one who truly knows her husband. All that other stuff--the drinking, the sleeping around, the bravado, the lies--that's not who he is. That's who other people think he is, but they don't understand him because they can't really see him. They mistake him for the jerks he spends time with. They don't know what he's like when it's just the two of us, when he's sweet and kind and loving. They don't hear him tell me I'm the only one who understands him, that I can never leave or he won't survive, that it's the two of us against the world.

I decided I needed to learn more about God so I could speak with authority when I reminded people who God really was. I enrolled in a doctoral program in theology. Reading all the things people had written about God was intoxicating, like reading self-help books that promise you can make your man love you forever in five easy steps. God could be anything I wanted God to be, these theologians reminded me, all I needed to do was change the way I looked at God. I was sure I could make God into the God I believed God to be.

I corrected God's sexist language, deconstructed God's racist jokes, showed God how homophobia was problematic, pointed out places in the world that needed attention, and God didn't seem to mind. I convinced myself God liked changing, that God would do anything to stay with me because God loved me. Pretty soon God was doing all the right things, saying all the sweet words I'd been longing to hear. Changing God felt good, empowering, but then, all of a sudden, it was terrifying because when I looked at God, all I could see was what I had projected onto him. I realized I was turning God into someone God wasn't, someone God couldn't be.

I quit the ordination process. I left the church. I mumbled something about people changing, about needing different things, about needing to be apart in order to be together someday, about needing to reclaim ourselves as individuals so we didn't die on the inside or end up hating and resenting each other. I wanted God to stop me from leaving. I wanted God to promise things would be different. I wanted God to beg me to come back. But God didn't say a word.

So I broke up with God. I wasn't gentle. It's not me, I said. It's you.

For a long time I didn't tell anyone it was over between God and me, not my friends, not my parents, not my professors at school, not myself. I told people I stopped trying to be a priest because the church was sexist and inflexible, but the truth was I stopped trying to be a priest because I fell out of love, maybe with God, maybe with myself. "How's your relationship with God?" people asked. "Great," I lied. "We're doing great."

I went back to the places I used to go with God, trying to get that feeling back, trying to remember what being in love felt like, but it was like visiting "It's a Small World" at Disneyland when you're an adult: The magic's gone, and all you can see is racism and dirty water and poorly made dolls spinning around and around, going nowhere. I tried to remember what I felt when things were good between us--all those feelings of belonging, of being chosen--but I couldn't feel it anymore.

People kept asking me to lead prayers, to say grace before family meals, to officiate at their weddings, to preach at their churches, and I did, but I didn't bring God with me to these events. All I could talk about was love, the mystery of it.

When you break up with someone, it doesn't mean that person ceases to exist. You bump into each other around town. You see your love with other people, and it makes you jealous, makes you consider getting back together, makes you wonder if you made a mistake when you called it quits. That's what makes breaking up so hard. The version of God I used to love is still out there in the world, hanging around in churches, showing up in people's prayers and hearts and imaginations, playing important roles in the stories we like to tell, saving some and condemning others. But I know he's not the right God for me. I try to remember that.

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