I revisit The Missing Piece regularly, ever since a friend gave me the little book two decades ago.
I think I see myself in the story. The little almost-circle thumping slowly along, looking for his missing piece. Singing his song, talking to worms, trying out pieces that almost fit but don’t quite.
Then hallelujah!, he finds it. He takes it in and is now a perfect circle. He’s no longer missing a piece.
Only now he rolls faster. Way faster. Too fast. Zooms past the worms and flowers. He no longer has a hole to make him lopsided and slow him down. And also the new piece stuffs his mouth so full that he can’t sing his song any more, the one about how he’s looking for his missing piece.
So he makes a decision.
He lets his missing piece go and rolls away, thumping slowly along again, singing.
That little piece has equalled different things for me over the years. But the truth of the story has always been the same: The hole in your heart, maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’s there for a reason. Maybe missing a piece somehow makes you a better person.
Recently I set a piece down and walked away from it. It was a big, important piece.
I had spent most of my life looking for it. Then I found it, snapped it into place, and got rolling. But in time I realized that I didn’t like the person I had become. I had gone from feeling completed to feeling closed-off. No holes or imbalances to slow me down, no hungers to force me open.
My missing piece was religious certainty. A sense of surety that I know all about God. That my set of God-beliefs are the correct ones. I once had that confidence, but a few years ago I decided to let it go and roll away.
Which means that now I know a whole lot less about God. Almost nothing.
And I like it. A lot.
I was thinking today about the reasons why, and without much effort I came up with seven of them:
1. I no longer carry the burden to defend God or to convince anyone of anything.
Part of what you sign up for with the Christian faith is the responsibility to protect it from foreign invaders. In my youth I memorized scriptures that said we should always be ready to explain and defend the things we believe. The whole world was a mission field.
This always felt like a huge burden to me. I’m introverted, and even at my surest I had doubts. Yet I was supposed to defend the faith and convince others to believe? Why does the almighty God need me as protector anyway?
But when I traded in my closed view of God for one that was wide open, one made up of far more questions than answers, suddenly I realized that it was never really God I was being asked to defend. It was my particular group’s beliefs about God.
2. I appreciate the gifts of this life far more, now that I’m not so focused on the next.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after I die. I’ve been taught various things by people who think they know, but of course nobody does. In the end it all comes down to faith, and perhaps even more so to hope (two things that I don’t discount in the least).
When I decided to embrace my uncertainty about these things, to allow mysteries to be mysteries, my happiness-center-of-gravity shifted from the blessings of Someday to the blessings of Now. I don’t know if blessings await me when I die, but I do know that I’ve got lots of good things right here that have gone tragically unnoticed and sadly under-appreciated.
I can’t see what’s coming next, but I can definitely see what’s here right now. And this life is not nearly as miserable as I once believed it to be.
In fact, it’s pretty awesome.
3. I no longer get upset when I hear about what other people believe.
I was taught that the stakes of faith-facts are enormous. That if a person believed the wrong things s/he was in danger of eternal punishment. No wonder Christians sometimes get so worked up.
One of the reasons I stepped away from religion was that this no longer made sense to me. Loving-God would not bet it all on whether or not we believe exactly the right ideas and then turn and make those ideas extremely difficult to navigate and agree upon. Loving-God would not hide salvation-truth like an Easter egg and then stand back while we scurry desperately around looking for it.
No. If there’s an afterlife (I don’t know), and if there’s a judgment (I’m very uncertain of this), it can’t be about having the right ideas. Not for Loving-God. It must be about something else.
So tell me whatever whacky theory you’ve got about Loving-God, whatever construction helps you get something like a grip on the infinite mystery of it all. I bet there’s some truth in it somewhere, and I bet it’s no more or less whacky than mine.
4. My morals are becoming my own.
I grew up learning about sin. That any action or thought that goes against God’s wishes, as stated in scripture, is a sin. Sometimes you will understand why a sin is wrong, sometimes you won’t. It doesn’t matter, if God says don’t then you don’t.
I wasn’t sure what would happen to my sense of right and wrong once I stopped believing in the system. Without very clear directions and a fear of punishment behind them, isn’t it reasonable to assume I might spin off my moral axis?
That hasn’t happened. Instead, in the absence of unquestionable truths to guide me from above, I’ve found the mental space to explore ethics on their own terms. To make my own choices and pay attention to their natural consequences. To think about the results of my actions on the lives of the people around me, and in the deepest parts of myself.
And after a few years of this I think I’ve figured something out. Most (definitely not all) of the behavioral rules I was taught from the Bible actually hold up on their own, even without calling them sin. They just make sense. People do lots of damage when they steal, murder, lie, cheat, hoard wealth, ignore the needy, use and abuse people sexually and otherwise. I don’t need to hear this from religion to know these rules are right, and I don’t need to fear external punishment to want to follow them.
I feel free now to sort these things out from my own experience and still-incomplete wisdom. I feel okay to insist that a rule make sense on its own merits, and to reject the ones that don’t. “Because the Bible says so” isn’t enough for me any more.
And when I feel the reasons for a rule deep down, I’m way more likely to follow it gladly. To do what’s right out of joy rather than obligation.
5. I have a much larger sense of mystery now.
I think a big part of happiness is mystery. Essential to bliss is a feeling that reality is infinitely larger than the capacity of my wee little brain. That no matter how long I live there will always be new things to discover, new experiences to amaze.
I think this because I’ve seen a tight relationship between having all the answers and being unhappy. I can tell you from my experience serving a church, the gripy-est people by far are also the ones who no longer have any questions or doubts. They closed their minds and hearts long ago, believing Truth to be small and easily knowable. They are among the saddest people you are likely ever to meet.
Life can feel big and scary. And the thought of death is terrifying. So early on we scramble to find answers to the eternal questions, words to fill in the gaping blanks. And there is no shortage of belief-systems out there eager to help us do that. I think that by the time we’re, say, 30, most of us have filled in those holes with something we were taught or something we found on our own. After then we rarely revisit them.
But for lots of reasons, here I am again. I’ve let go of my certainty, I’ve erased many of the answers I’d written into those blanks. I’m open now, and reality is huge.
But this time, instead of feeling scared, I’m thrilled.
6. I’m now open to Truth wherever I find it.
Or wherever it finds me.
I think God has given us heart-strings that vibrate with deep, resonant music whenever they encounter Truth. The source doesn’t really matter, God can use anyone or anything.
I sometimes used to mute those strings if I didn’t think the message was coming from the right place, or the right person. Afraid that the idea might not fit well with my belief system, that someone was trying to lead me astray.
One of the benefits to setting aside my certainty has been the ability to hear God speak to me from many different angles, without worry or suspicion. To trust my heart to recognize Truth when I hear it.
Truth is all around, as it turns out.
7. My God got way bigger.
You know that thing where the astronauts look back at the earth from the moon and realize just how small it really is? That’s something like what I’m experiencing the further I get away from religion. I now see that the being who was put to me as God was so, so very limited. And that many of the things I was taught — theologies and interpretations — seem now to have been less about experiencing the divine and more about drawing lines around God. Attempts to contain the uncontainable, to control the uncontrollable.
When I was five Mrs. Norris taught us that God is everywhere. Up in heaven, all around, even inside of us. I remember the moment. We were in Sunday school, toes in the sandbox, and she said it. I looked around the room, trying to see God in the air. I squinted, thinking that might help. I patted all over my chest and head, hoping somehow to feel God inside. I stretched my little brain as big as it would go, trying to wrap it around this idea. But it didn’t work. I couldn’t make it big enough. How can God be everywhere?
I still don’t understand it, but I believe it. Because it keeps proving true to me.
Mrs. Norris was right about God. And I now see that that moment was the peak of my spiritual education. That was God at God’s very biggest.