by Hannah Macauley-Gierhart

This post is part of a loosely themed series called ‘God in Skin’. It will still make sense on its own but if you want to follow a longer flow you can go back and read the previous post. Click here for part 1.

Reflecting on the formative years of my faith is bittersweet. There’s a certain comfort to the safe boundaries of religious structure, an assurance in rituals that are predictable and repetitive. There were no surprises in this kind of Christianity: I’d go to Sunday school and learn to O-B-E-Y obey my mum and dad (note the obligatory church-kid Psalty reference), sing songs about Jesus’ love, and colour in between the bold lines of some sketched parable. We’d wear our best clothes, play with other ‘good’ kids, and memorise bible verses in the cloistered heat of a room assigned for our religious education. When I dredge up these images of the early-days of my Christian experience, I feel a strange mix of fondness and suffocation. Bittersweet.

Yet even within the tight framework of the Christianity I knew as a child, there were moments that foreshadowed my future-wrestling with the boundaries of belief. Once, I decided to venture into the semi-wilderness behind my Baptist church, emerging an hour later to a congregation calling my name and distraught parents who didn’t know what had happened to me. Another, I remember being tired of waiting for my parents to STOP TALKING and made my way to the family car to wait it out. Again, parental panic ensued; as it soon turned out I’d gotten into the wrong red station wagon and couldn’t be found – again. And another, when we were having a church picnic down at Terrigal after the service one Sunday. I begged my parents to let me swim in the ocean pool after lunch; I wasn’t going to let my lack of cozzies and the fact it was the middle of winter stop me. Despite being told a very firm – and wise – no, I launched myself into the brine fully clothed in my Sunday best. I’ve never seen my dad so furious. We can laugh about it now.

To me, those moments are a kind of frog kick against the currents I found myself swept along with from an early age. I’ve never been one to toe the line at the best of times, but I think I’ve always felt a frustration in the status quo, a desire to stretch my arms wide and feel free air, not solid walls holding me in.

About mid-primary school, my parents discovered charismaticism at a John Wimber conference and at once the edges of my Christian paradigms exploded. Where I had known the muted organ music and reverent hush of a church sanctuary, now services were marked by chaos and noise and people rolling around on the floor. This signified a new normal that would define my experience of Jesus for many years, leading me across the world to study in a church famous for revival and shaping my understanding of a real and close God who worked and moved tangibly in the world around me. There is so much beauty in this expression of faith, but again I found myself becoming just as dogmatic about the perimeters of experience and reframing my beliefs in a structured, me-and-my-dogmatic-views versus the world kind of way.

In all of this, I felt drawn to the margins. Growing up with siblings with disabilities, I was struck by the exclusive nature of churches that didn’t really know what to do with those that didn’t fit the mould. My parents also felt a similar pull to the fringes of society and worked with the homeless, drug addicted, and mentally challenged, feeding and medically treating them and showing them deep, simple love. In this modelling of serving the socially excluded, I witnessed the most miraculous expressions of Jesus: instant healings from addiction, multiplying food, people experiencing a God that was sitting in the dirt with the brokenhearted.

My heart was for empathy and activism, and as I started to move more into this reality, I began to grapple with a faith system that was commanded to serve the overlooked but didn’t seem to be doing much of that. I am so aware that this is not true of all Christians, but the broad experiences I’ve had of church revealed an institution that was good at serving our own needs and less good at living out the stuff Jesus was pretty clear about.

I am grateful for the rhythms of Christian expression I have encountered in my thirty-something years. There have been the beautiful and the repressive, the holy and the very unholy. I have been shaped by some excellent humans and traumatised by others. And what I am left with is a very shaken-up kaleidoscope that’s settled into a mosaic of an upside-down kingdom. What I thought I knew doesn’t hold weight anymore, and I’ve felt unmoored from releasing the structures I’ve held onto tightly at either end of the conservative / progressive spectrum of faith. I’ve let go of so much and tried to hold my hands open so I can receive truth. I’ve felt the uneasy seesaw of juggling old and new. I’ve dared to ask big questions that made my heart race when I actually dared speak them.

At some points, I’ve felt close to giving it all up. In trying to balance the bible with the issues of race, gender, sexuality, conservation, and disability I’m passionate about, I couldn’t seem to find equilibrium. And yet. Jesus keeps calling me back. Through my stages of literalism, turn-or-burn-ism, disillusionism, poststructuralism… He’s been a steady anchor when I couldn’t find my bearings. I’m in a very different faith place to what I’d ever have anticipated, but the view from here is magnificent. I’m still cradling a whole lot of questions and feel a whole lot out of place in mainstream Christianity, but I keep getting pulled back to the centreing reality of Jesus, and there’s peace in that space.   

What am I left with? I adore Jesus. Everything beyond him is up for grabs. In a world that feels chaotic and overwhelming, he is the only thing that makes sense. I don’t have the words to frame my faith in a concrete way, but it’s all still hinged on that God-man that lived millennia ago and still speaks truth into my twenty-first century life. He infuses everything: my marriage to an excellent man, our parenting of two gorgeous babes, my teaching, my writing, my living…

It’s a liberating thing to let go of the structures of my faith experiences and see that the core holds steady.

And so, this. I was thrilled when Will floated the idea of this project by me. What’s written about here are things that have been percolating in my mind for years, and it’s joyous to formally give voice to them. I hope that the journeys Will and I have been on echo with others and speak to something bigger that we’ve all been feeling. Hopefully, the ragamuffins (as my beloved Brennan Manning phrased it), the outcasts, the questioners, the bemused, and the heart-weary will find resonance with these words we’ve penned. But may solidarity not keep us stuck in disillusionment. My hope is that reassessing what it means to really follow Jesus brings us to a new level of authenticity and sweet depths of freedom. Our writing is honest and irreverent, but genuine in our desire to get to the heart of this messy, baffling thing called faith.

Questions you might want to chew over/chat to someone about: 

  • What parts of Hannah’s story could you relate to?
  • If you grew up in a faith tradition, can you identify with formative years that now seem ‘bittersweet’? What was good about them? What doesn’t look as good in hindsight?
  • Within Christian culture Hannah has seen ‘beautiful’, ‘oppressive’, ‘holy’ and ‘unholy.’ How about you? What have you experienced that relates to each of these categories?

To read the next post in the ‘God-in-skin’ series, click here.

4 Comments on “My Bittersweet Faith Formation

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Hannah. I can connect with your journey of faith.

  2. I love the honesty in this Hannah, the admission of doubt but the assurance of Jesus. I imagine this is a common set of feelings, rarely voiced…thank you for the courage to pen it.

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