I was a troublemaker in Sunday school. No, not because I was passing notes (though they were passed, discreetly). I was a troublemaker because I did the worst thing a young Southern Baptist born and raised girl can do: I asked questions. The big questions.
If Noah and his family were the only people left on Earth after the flood, how did they repopulate without incest? If drinking alcohol is a sin, why was it okay for Jesus to do it? If it took seven days to create the Earth, what about the dinosaurs?
That last one was the question that got me in real trouble. I was publicly scolded by my teacher for causing a commotion. Luckily, my parents were reasonable human beings and didn’t see the harm in having an inquisitive eight-year-old. But even with their support, I subliminally learned a lesson that day: asking questions wasn’t Christian.
So I kept quiet, for fear that I would attract even more ire from my adult overlords. Or worse, that God would be mad and I wouldn’t get into heaven.
What I experienced at eight-years-old is what I now call righteous certainty — the idea that the Bible is absolute and that questioning its word exposes your lack of faith in it.
It’s like being told you no longer believe in gravity because you asked how it works — which is crazy sauce. I can see that clearly now, but it took many years, a lot of soul-searching, and my father’s death to finally realize it.
At 25, I was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one of the levees broke a block from my apartment) and adapting to my new home in Houston. I was angry and in a lot of pain. I did everything right. I followed all the rules, I’d think bitterly.
My whole life, I had hung around the right people, stayed away from the wrong people, went to church every weekend, and even sang in the choir. I thought my religion would be my saving grace, but instead, I suddenly found that I had no real relationship with the God I’d claimed to serve. I had to make a change. I had to get real with God.
So I threw all of my questions at God. And God had a comeback for each of them: Just love.
Should guilt be my motivator for righteous living? Just love.
Do I have the right to judge others when I am not perfect? Just love.
Do I have to be preoccupied with getting everyone to think like me? Just love.
Why do bad things happen to good people? Just love.
My perspective began to shift from What would Jesus do? to How would Jesus love?. But, I was still missing a piece of the puzzle.
In 2010, at the age of 30, that illusive piece fell into place when my father passed away suddenly.
My dad was an internationally-known jazz musician and actor. He began touring as a teenager and continued to do so until the days before his death. He worked on multiple film projects and was a cast member in the pilot of HBO’s Treme, which premiered just weeks after his death. He was also an advocate for musician’s rights in New Orleans. When he passed, not only did our family mourn, but a large part of the entertainment community mourned with us.
On the day of his funeral, hundreds of people packed the sanctuary until they spilled out into the street. And out of all those people, no one told me what a great businessman, musician or advocate my father was. Instead, they reminisced about how he had made them laugh on their worst day, or fought for them when they couldn’t fight themselves.
My father wasn’t an especially religious man, but he was a believer. He would much rather spend Sunday morning sitting on his porch reading about God than in a church. But here he was — with a standing-room-only funeral — not because he had followed all the rules, but because he had built relationships. He made people feel loved.
After all my searching, that was the day when I stopped asking questions and finally understood my faith.
I realized it’s all about loving people, as corny as that may sound. I spent my life following a list of dos and don’ts and had missed out on 30 years of loving people, myself included.
Love is what God wants from me, from all of us, and faith isn’t based on righteous certainty. It’s based on knowing nothing, and being okay with the vulnerable space that places us in. It is that space that connects us all.
Now, I plan on standing before the pearly gates with a list of those I have loved — not a list of rules I haven’t broken. I think God will be pleased.
Then, I’ll hit him with the dinosaur question.
This post originally appeared on Bustle and Huffington Post.