How a move to the country helped me sort out the God dilemma
At 7 a.m. on Sunday, 13th August 1995, I finally ran away from the God of the Bible.
I was resolute but scared. I imagined His eyes burning holes in my back as I loaded the van with five kids, two guinea pigs in a cage, and a camping stove. He folded his arms and frowned down at me from heaven while I put the front door key under the mat for the new owners and wiped my sweating hands on my jeans before taking a final look around. Then I reversed fast down the drive, determined to catch up with my husband in the truck loaded with the rest of our possessions, and equally determined to leave behind the God I’d obeyed for years.
The sun was just up. There was a chill in the air and a midwinter mist hanging over the Darling Ranges. There was a chill in my heart, too, and a mist in my mind as I pulled into Albany Highway and headed for the 20-acre property we’d bought on the south coast of Western Australia, exactly 444 kilometres away. Should I be doing this? And were 444 kilometres far enough away from a God whose existence I now doubted?
* * * * * * * *
As I settled in for the long drive, I vividly recalled sitting on the top red back step the day God first came to our house. I was eight years old. One minute He wasn’t there, then He was. Filling the yard and house, and eventually the whole sky.
We lived at 43 Worley Street, Willagee, a working-class suburb near Fremantle, in Western Australia. Mum was kneeling at the round flowerbed, a container of seedlings in one hand and her gardening fork in the other. The sun caught gold bits in her hair as she moved. Christine was on the swing, pointing her toes to the sky and smiling at the rush of wind. Carolyn patted her dolly in the cream cane pram she used to lie in herself. She was bending over, her white cotton panties showing. Carolyn wouldn’t be able to have children when she grew up because God didn’t heal her of endometriosis. But we didn’t know that back then.
I wrapped my arms around my legs and rested my chin on my knees as Mum forked the soil. Sunlight fell on the parting in my hair, burning a line along my scalp. The sharp voices of the Migliore kids arguing again drifted over the back fence. A magpie half hidden in the silver birch tree called, clear and clean. A much nicer sound.
Dad opened the back door. I moved down one step.
‘You shouldn’t be doing that today, Mag,’ he said, his usually quiet voice carrying right across the backyard
Mum turned to face him, frowning. ‘Why not?’
‘Because God said.’
Christine slowed the swing. Her heels bounced along the ground, flicking grass. Carolyn scooped the doll out of the pram and held it close, staring at Dad. I twisted around and looked up at him, my mouth open. He’d never mentioned God before. Not to me. But he must have talked to Mum about Him because she didn’t look surprised.
‘What’s wrong with planting a few seedlings?’ Mum asked.
‘It’s the Sabbath. God says we’re not to do any work today.’
‘Gardening’s fun. It isn’t work!’
Mum leaned back on her heels and swung the fork in an arc that included the whole yard, from the brick garage Dad built on one side to the grey picket fence on the other. ‘God made the trees and flowers,’ she said. ‘He should be glad I’m looking after them.’ She stiffened, then swerved, as a bee circled her head. She waved it away with the fork. ‘And what about the bees? He made them and they’re busy working.’
‘God didn’t write the Bible for the bees.’
Mum turned away and jabbed at the earth. Dirt flew. I looked up at Dad again. His mouth was a straight line.
‘Remember Lot’s wife,’ Dad said as Mum reached for a seedling and held it briefly in the air, its weak little roots dangling.
I’d never heard of Lot’s wife but could tell Mum had. She looked shocked.
‘I don’t think God’s going to turn me into a pillar of salt in my own garden,’ she said and patted the soil around the tiny plant as if she loved it.
‘Mag!’ Dad’s voice was sharp, like the headmaster calling a naughty boy’s name across the playground. ‘Gardening on the Sabbath is a sin!’
He’d never spoken to her like that before. Mum stuck the fork in the ground, got up, and went to the tap to wash the sand off her hands. Now her mouth was a straight line too. She followed Dad into the house through the blue back door.
The sun slipped behind a cloud as we three girls moved towards each other and stood in a row under the empty washing line. The magpie flew to find a footing on the side fence and called, making the whole backyard briefly sweet again. I stared up at the warm red top step I’d been sitting on minutes before, imagining God standing on it now. He was watching me, even though I couldn’t see Him. How long would He stay? How much luggage would He bring? Where would He sleep?
* * * * * * * *
Memories, memories. I flicked the indicator and turned left to follow Albany Highway up and over the Darling Ranges, smiling ruefully at my childish questions. Now I knew the answers.
How long would He stay? The God of the Bible stayed for years, spanning the rest of my childhood, then through adolescence and young adulthood. And now, here I was in my early forties, putting my foot on the accelerator to make sure the old van running on LP gas didn’t conk out as I escaped his influence.
How much luggage had he brought? Too much. Commandments, threats, insults, prophecies, annual holy days, weekly sabbath, daily prayers, dietary laws, three tithes, fasting, arrogant ministers, atrocious biblical role models, empty promises. The kilometres whizzed by as I mentally ticked off why I was ticked off, distributed packets of crisps to keep the kids happy, and tried to stop them from getting the guinea pigs out of the cage.
Where had he slept? Deep inside me. A tumour. Growing bigger. Sucking me dry.
Six hours later we arrived at a twenty-acre property that we’d bought to give us space to sort out what we thought of as “the God thing”. The house was only a half-built wood-turner’s studio. No bedrooms. No laundry. No kitchen sink, stove, fridge, or cupboards. As soon as we unloaded, Rob, who’d joined the church when he was nineteen and was now as disillusioned as me, used a builder’s stapler to affix plastic where walls and windows should be, to keep out the slanting rain. I cooked beans and potatoes on the camp stove and washed dishes in a basin outside under the garden tap.
Within a week the inverter providing solar power blew up and had to be put on the back of a truck and taken to Perth to be fixed. So, the kids read and did homework by candlelight as they sat on makeshift beds and swatted mosquitoes zinging through countless cracks in the walls. We fell asleep to the melancholy call of frogs moaning in the reeds surrounding the property, and the squabbling sounds of swamp hens in the winter lake lapping metres from the house. But we were free. We were ourselves. A family. Finding our own way. Without God.
At this place, which we named Evergreen because the swamp grasses were always green, westerly winds constantly carried faint sounds of the sea. The air was tinged with salt spray and the sky formed a wide, wondrous bowl. Sometimes it contained a sunrise, a milky moon, the morning star, and a rainbow, all at the same time. I’d never seen so much nature on my doorstep. But the pulsing beauty outside didn’t really help me untangle the frayed ball of belief in my head. Sometimes I was the eight-year-old girl sitting on the top red step in the back yard before God came, being my simple self. Other times I was the powerless, fearful person God made me once he moved in.
We still occasionally went to church in Perth, observed the New Testament Passover, and attended the annual holy week called the Feast of Tabernacles. We ignored the other holy days and ceased keeping the Sabbath. It was a sort of dance we were doing, like the rhumba. One step forward. A step to the side. One step backward. Another step to the side. Forming a square. Start again. One step forward. A step to the side. One step backward. Another step to the side. Getting nowhere but giving ourselves the illusion that we were progressing, sorting things out.
Tape recordings of Sabbath services arrived in the mailbox every week, posted by a diligent deacon to ensure we stayed connected to the heartbeat of the church because we hadn’t informed the administration that we’d left. We’d just slunk away. I’d put the tapes on the countertop, within easy reach, but they remained unopened. Why should I get shouted at in my own lounge room? I stopped reading the Bible every day. Stopped praying. Stopped kneeling by the bed to commune with a God who was cruel and uncommunicative, and who still hadn’t sent his Son to save the world from imminent destruction.
But sometimes, almost unaware of what I was doing, I’d find myself standing at the sliding door in the kitchen, face pressed to the glass, watching the sun set on a Friday evening, recalling the past. I didn’t want it back, exactly, but missed something intangible from it. I didn’t want to recite commandments, memorise scriptures or pray for the safety of long-winded evangelists. I didn’t want to base my life on fearing God and waiting for latter-day prophecies to be fulfilled. But in letting those things go I’d lost so much of what I was, what I stood for. With my religion gone, it was as if there was nothing left of me. My life had no meaning.
One night I had a dream.
Thousands of joyful voices fill the air, shouting God is here! God is here!
I sway in unison with the crowd, the communal movement dissolving the weight of waiting I’ve carried most of my life. Am I imagining it, as I have many times? No, this is real. Chanting pulses around the courtyard as a ball of light brighter than the sun floods the sky and moves slowly earthward, holding, within it, God the Father.
This must be The Last Great Day.
His hallowed feet have landed. He has come. He has come. At last!
I must get closer. See His face. Hear Him say my name.
Determined to get to the front, I force a way through the excited multitude. I turn sideways to slip between all the men blocking my progress. I gag at the acrid smell of dry-cleaning fluid emanating from their suits and dodge their heavy, highly polished leather shoes.
Finally, I stand before Him, stare up at His radiant face, and gaze into eyes the colour of wide skies and seething seas and distant stars.
‘Hello,’ I say loud enough for Him to hear as I struggle to maintain my footing among the surging, mainly male crowd.
I expect a smile of recognition and a warm greeting after all my prayers begging for His presence. And perhaps an extended hand that I will take in both of mine. Should I kiss it? Or would that be presumptuous? I don’t know. My full heart is racing.
But all I get is a frown and an affronted question.
‘Who are you?’
Before I have time to answer, He turns from me. Men surround Him like bodyguards and hustle Him towards a door.
I call out, “I’m Marlane. Don’t you remember? It’s me, Marlane!’
My voice is high and pathetic, like a lost lamb’s bleat. I follow God but He’s not interested. He has important business to attend to, and no time to listen to me. A man with a red tie opens a heavy wooden door inset with gold, and God walks through it, a robe of light swirling around Him, just like I knew it would. The bodyguards almost trip over each other in their eagerness not to be left behind, and the man in the power tie deliberately shuts the door in my face.
I lean my forehead on it and howl like the young Egyptian mother in the book of Exodus had howled behind the mill at the death of her first-born son during the tenth plague God had used to curse the Egyptians. This woman, bereft of her child through no fault of her own, had haunted me since childhood. I’d learned to ignore her, but here she is again, a nameless woman reminding me of things about God I’ve never liked and never resolved. The God that doesn’t even know my name.
Most dreams fade from memory just before you open your eyes in the morning. Some dreams wake you up. This one woke me. I was making awful throaty sounds, like a death rattle, and I was shaking. The God I’d worshipped and feared for more than thirty years didn’t even know my name. So that was that. The end. No more God. The little bit of hope I’d subconsciously clung to, that the God of the Bible was real and loved me, was gone for good. No more looking back with regret.
I felt confused and disappointed, but over the next few years, I honestly faced up to what was bothering me deep down about the God I’d been taught to worship. I admitted my religious beliefs didn’t make sense. They didn’t satisfy my longing for a spiritual life.
In the seclusion and beauty of Evergreen, I rediscovered peace and reconnected with the spirit that pervades all things, which I’d sensed as a child before a man-made god came and kicked me off the top red back step in Worley Street.
Leaving religion isn't easy.
If you’re struggling with the idea of running away from a God that no longer makes sense to you, writing your thoughts down in point form can bring clarity. What is bothering you? What don't you believe anymore? What doesn't make sense?
I found ten great reasons why it was good to run away from the God of the Bible. One of them is that he doesn’t have a sense of humour. Another is that there have been too many wars fought in his name.
I’m writing a book about the ten reasons I came up with. I’ll keep you posted as the book progresses.
Let me know if you're interested in this topic.
If you have left a religion, what was the turning point for you? What made you leave?
If you haven’t left yet, but want to, what’s keeping you there? What are you afraid of?
I’d love to hear from you.
With love, Marlane