Lori Arnold McFarlane used to be an evangelical Christian — and a very happy one at that. But a few years ago, after she openly mocked Harold Camping and his followers for warning people about the end of the world, she realized there really wasn’t much of a difference in their beliefs. The other side just attached a definitive date to an event she believed would happen in her lifetime. It wasn’t long before her faith in God disappeared completely.
She writes about that transition in a really beautiful memoir called The Last Petal Falling (CreateSpace, 2015):
Even though she had doubts of her own, McFarlane was intent on raising her three children to attend church and love Jesus. In the excerpt below, she writes about why she changed her mind about all that:
A few months after my son’s dedication, we moved back to America after having lived in Scotland for nine years. I was determined, eager even, to find a church. I hoped that back in Arkansas, we’d find just the right place to revive our faith. [Husband] Scott even agreed to come back to church with me. We visited a quaint little Presbyterian church that taught all the right messages theologically but had no children in its congregation. My children were the main reason I was so determined to find a church in the first place, so we kept looking. It was the summer holidays, so I sent my kids to a few different Vacation Bible Schools in the area to help them make friends. One VBS group wanted the kids to do a presentation in the Sunday service after the week was complete, so we went as a family to see our kids perform. It was a Lutheran church; we’d never really considered attending a Lutheran church before. We’d always considered them “practically Catholic”.
However, it amazed us. The preacher, Pastor Mac, was exuberant, welcoming and most of all, genuine. The kids loved the church, and my husband and I liked it too. We were pretty sure we’d found our church.
The Lutherans have a not-quite Roman Catholic, not-quite Evangelical approach to Communion (the Eucharist). Evangelicals see Communion as a symbol or a sign, a way of simply remembering Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. That was how I’d taken the Lord’s Supper my whole life, and particularly for the past nine years in the Brethren Church. The Roman Catholic doctrine is that the bread and wine are actually physically Jesus’ body and blood. Lutherans stand somewhere in the middle, believing that while the elements are not physically Christ’s body and blood, the “real presence of Jesus” is with the elements. I was unsure of this stance at first, but the following Sunday when all believers were invited to come to the front of the sanctuary to take Communion together, I timidly stood up and went forward. As I walked down the aisle, I allowed my tears to flow in mascara-rivulets down my cheeks. I realized I hadn’t felt this close to Jesus in a very long time. As I took the little piece of bread and tiny cup of wine, I lifted heart-felt praise to the Lord for restoring me with this tiny, ever so tiny, mustard seed of faith.I sat in my pew welling up with belief again. We continued to visit over the next weeks and then months. No matter what doubt or disbelief I felt Monday through Saturday, Sunday watered my seed. The “real presence of Jesus” in communion stirred so much hope in me.
Then one day I overheard my six year old daughter telling her friend that Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit were all one called the Trinity, and if you didn’t love God you would go to hell.
What a horrible thing to believe, a horrible thing to teach my child! It sounded so painfully idiotic, and downright offensive, coming from the lips of a six year old. I realized then and there that I truly had been deceiving myself these past few months. I wanted to believe that my faith was returning so badly that I allowed myself to be swept up in the precious, sweet sentiment of it all. But when spoken of in the light of day, so plainly, so academically, I knew I didn’t believe a word of it. I had to admit to myself that no matter what emotions Sunday stirred within me, Monday through Saturday were the days that mattered. And I flat out did not believe this.
In a last ditch effort, I turned to Pastor Mac. He exuded compassion and genuineness; I knew I could trust him. Before service the following Sunday, I caught his attention, and with stinging eyes, asked if I could speak to him sometime soon. I sat through the entire service fighting back tears.
As always, though, Monday came around, and I didn’t want to talk to him anymore. I was supposed to call him, but I chose not to. The man is a good pastor and truly caring, so I wasn’t surprised when he called me instead. I almost didn’t want to answer the phone but took it as a sign from God. This was my last ditch effort after all. Maybe it was the effort that God was going to use to restore my faith. My little mustard seed. So I answered.
We talked for a while. I told him I couldn’t hold on any longer, that I had one foot out the Christian door, and I felt before I called the whole thing off, I ought to speak to a pastor. He was very understanding and rational, and he prayed for me over the phone. While he prayed, I tried to join in with my heart, but it really felt all too late. Too late. We agreed to try to meet at some point to talk more in depth, but we never did. Not for his lack of trying; I just realized it was too late.
I was crushed. The burden of unbelief was heavier than I could bear. I told myself one last time the Christian answers — You’re trying to do this too much on your own. You are trying to get to heaven by works not faith. But there was no hope for the alternative. No God had answered my pleas. No faith was buoying me above the water. Sinking, crushed, burdened, I had been thrust into the sea with a millstone around my neck. I kicked and struggled, grasped around for anything that could keep me afloat, gulped for air. But there was nothing to hold onto. As I exhaled my last breath and sunk slowly to the bottom of the sea, I realized even if there had been some driftwood bobbing in the waters nearby, I would not reach for it. I no longer wanted this. I no longer wanted any of this.
God, you took too long. I have collapsed under this unbearable burden. After all, I’m only made of flesh, and you left me to carry this yoke all on my own.
The Last Petal Falling is now available on Kindle and in paperback.
(On a personal note, I’ve seen a *lot* of self-published books over the years, and this is one of the most impressive final products I’ve ever seen. I was shocked to learn McFarlane did this herself. The story itself is compelling, but even the look of it is just fantastic.)