Holy Shenanigans

A Faith of Many Rooms: An Interview with Debie Thomas

April 30, 2024 Tara Lamont Eastman Season 5 Episode 13
A Faith of Many Rooms: An Interview with Debie Thomas
Holy Shenanigans
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Holy Shenanigans
A Faith of Many Rooms: An Interview with Debie Thomas
Apr 30, 2024 Season 5 Episode 13
Tara Lamont Eastman

Author Debie Thomas discusses her new book "A Faith of Many Rooms" with Pastor Tara. They delves into topics such as the messy journey of faith, the significance of doubt, and the concept of spiritual "nada" or homeland.

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Pastor Tara Lamont Eastman is an Ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She has pastored ELCA and PCUSA churches throughout New York State. She was a contributing writer to the Collaborate Lutheran Student Bible and the Connect Sunday School curriculum, published by Sparkhouse.

Show Notes Transcript

Author Debie Thomas discusses her new book "A Faith of Many Rooms" with Pastor Tara. They delves into topics such as the messy journey of faith, the significance of doubt, and the concept of spiritual "nada" or homeland.

Send Tara a Text Message

Support the Show.

Pastor Tara Lamont Eastman is an Ordained Minister of Word & Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She has pastored ELCA and PCUSA churches throughout New York State. She was a contributing writer to the Collaborate Lutheran Student Bible and the Connect Sunday School curriculum, published by Sparkhouse.

Tara: [00:00:00] If you could ask any question about God or religion, what would you ask? And then I wonder, who would you ask your expansive, big question about God? Perhaps you're a little bit like me and have been asking big questions about God and religion and faith for a very long time. And if you're here with me today, you are in a space A space that has lots and lots of room for you to bring all of your questions.

Tara: This space is hosted by yours truly, Pastor Tara Lamont Eastman, a podcaster, a pastor and a practitioner of Holy Shenanigans and my special guest, author [00:01:00] Debbie Thomas. Debbie comes to us with a book called A Faith of Many Rooms, inhabiting a more spacious Christianity. So if you're looking for a conversation and some conversation partners that will give you all the elbow room, your faith journey needs, you are in the right place.

Tara: This place is Holy Shenanigans podcast, where things are always sacred, but never stuffy. Hi there, Debbie. Thank you so much for joining us here today.


Debie: Tara, it's wonderful to be with you. Thanks for having me.

Tara: folks are just hearing about the work that you do , what might you say as an introduction?

Debie: Right now I write for the Christian Century magazine. I've done that for some years. I serve as a lay minister for formation at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California. Otherwise I am a wife and a mom and I live in California. [00:02:00] And I'm also the daughter of immigrants, so moved from India when I was a baby and I grew up on the East Coast, actually in Boston.

Tara: In your book, faith of many rooms you talk a lot about this unpredictable and messy journey of faith in connection to your family and your, community in India. As well as your experience growing up in the United States.

Tara: And I just am curious when you say this journey has been messy, what do you mean by that?

Debie: Just to give some background for people listening. I grew up in Boston in a very tightly knit conservative evangelical faith community largely Indian immigrants who trace their Christian heritage back many generations from India and then brought that to the U.

Debie: S. In many ways, it was a really loving, beautiful community, and I'm grateful to have been raised in it. As a little kid, I actually loved it. I was a [00:03:00] preacher's kid, and unlike the cliche, I was not resentful of that. I loved going to church, and I loved, listening to sermons and being in that sacred space.

Debie: So there was a lot that was really good about that. But as I got older, as happens for so many of us, That world began to feel very small. You it was clear that there were some questions we were not supposed to ask about the Bible, about inclusion, about science that those were off limits.

Debie: Certain kinds of doubts and questions were just forbidden. They were a sign that you were sinning or you had backslidden rather than being seen as a vibrant part of a faith life. And the mess came because, you know, it becomes a matter of loyalty, loyalty your community, loyalty to your family.

Debie: And if you begin to question those things and you begin to think, maybe I need to leave, maybe I need another expression of faith to move into, it can feel like an act of being a traitor not being appropriately grateful or appropriately faithful or all of those things. [00:04:00] So I think that was a lot of where the mess came for me.


Tara: I think that term resonated with me a lot personally I came from different cultural background, but very similar. Context in, origin story of connection to family and community super tight knit and the act of asking questions wasn't welcomed.

Debie: No, definitely not. People found it threatening. 

Tara: But I myself was always very curious. And I could not help myself to ask the big questions and. I assumed somehow in my relationship with God or the divine, that God could take the big questions.

Debie: Absolutely. 

Tara: Even though the way environment around me sometimes would be like, why do you always have to, you know turn over the apple cart?

Debie: Exactly. Right. This is not an issue with God. It's really not. It's more an issue with the communities that we create and how we need to safeguard them and gatekeep around them. 

Tara: And I confront this not [00:05:00] as just wanting to upset the apple cart for the sake of upsetting the apple cart. It comes out of a a need to have an authentic spiritual life and relationship with God and with others.

Debie: Absolutely. That's part of the way we love God and that God sees that as a loving act to be engaged in that way. It's not trying to be a rebel just to be a rebel at all. That's the farthest from what it actually is.

Tara: Yeah. think that's just a very important point for folks to hear, because I think that the act of questioning or expressing doubts can just be assumed as being cantankerous or trying to be upsetting,

Tara: but actually it's an expression of authentic seeking of God and God's way of, connecting in your life.

Debie: Right. , I mean, the ironic thing about this is that it's all over scripture. You have character after character after character of Genesis to Revelation who ask really hard questions and God honors those questions. It's never a matter of, , being condemned because of them. That's, the way the relationship with God works.

Debie: We [00:06:00] have this precedent and we have this in our own biblical history, but somehow we're afraid of it. 

Tara: Yeah, there are so many stories of people going on a sojourn seeking God and seeking wisdom and seeking community. But you have a very special word for community and home. Could you please tell me that word that's in your introduction

Debie: So it's a word that's in my parents mother tongue Malayalam and the word is nada. So nada literally it means homeland so when they speak about India, like part of India that they're from Kerala, which is the southern part of the subcontinent. They always say nada, going back to nada.

Debie: It has a lot of resonance beyond just geographical homeland. It's like the place of your belonging, the place where you're welcomed, where you're. unconditionally accepted and embraced. So it has a lot of just rich resonance beyond just geography. And so I've kind of, in the book, tried to think about that word in a spiritual way.

Debie: What [00:07:00] is our spiritual nada? where do we find home? And what does it take to find that? And sometimes it means doing a little bit of leaving before you can do some arriving. That's also part of that journey.

Tara: You speak to this in your book, but especially around Thomas. So as a preacher myself, so many times people are like, oh, are you going to address Thomas as this doubter? Are you gonna, and I have resisted that definition of Thomas personally. I consider Thomas Thomas the investigator.

Debie: I love that. Yes. That's beautiful. Thomas has a special place in my heart. faith life because he as either legend or history has it, we're not sure he came to India, the southern part of India, where my ancestors are from and started churches there. So my family actually claims that our Christian heritage goes all the way back to the first century.

Debie: And so he's a very important figure for Indian Christians. If you go to India and I've seen these churches that are dedicated [00:08:00] to him, there's a lot of iconography and sculpture that's associated with Thomas. He's considered kind of a patron saint. So he's important and I think you're absolutely right.

Debie: I think it's a mistake to just condemn him as the doubter. He was someone who insisted on having an authentic encounter with Christ, an encounter of his own. He was not just going to accept. the faith of others and just kind of take that as a default. He wanted to probe and push and have his own experience.

Debie: And that's, that's beautiful. I love that. 

Tara: Thank you for giving us the context. , because so much in American Christianity is relatively new when we think about the age of this country. We think we have this corner on the market . But I love that you're saying going back to the first century,

Debie: Yeah.

Debie: Think it's an important piece of the story because so often Christianity and other parts of the world are just only considered a product of colonialism. And there is, that very ugly and, , violent history as well, which we need to reckon [00:09:00] with. But there were indigenous Christianities in other parts of the world that were not necessarily part of, European colonialism, and it's important to hold those pieces of the story as well.

Tara: Yeah, thank you so much for lifting that up.

Tara: So we've talked a little bit about what inspired you to write this book. But is there anything more that you think is really important for people to know

Debie: Toni Morrison had that wonderful line about, you know, if there's a book that you really want and need to read and it doesn't exist, well, then you go write it. You know, so I think when I was growing up, especially as I became a teenager and young adult, I was so hungry for permission to explore faith and spirituality, and I wanted, books that would show me models of that, , show me other people who had done it, What kinds of questions are they asking?

Debie: How did they approach the Bible when kind of a strict literalism falls apart for them? And I didn't find much, you know, and of course this was a while ago. Now there's, much more available. So that always kind of sat with me I wish there [00:10:00] had been these stories out there circulating, especially from diverse voices, all different communities, all different ethnicities, races, etc.

Debie: That had been with me for a long time. And so then I finally got to a point where I thought, I want to write it. I want to, I want to write my experience. Not that that's, you know, it's one of many experiences, but I think it's an important one to have out there maybe there are other young women out there or young men out there who have similar questions and need a guide or need someone to accompany them.

Debie: And I hope the book can do that.

Tara: So I'm curious as you have gone through this journey, what are you glad to have let go of? As well as what are you joyful to have held on to?

Debie: Oh, what a beautiful question. So, I am very grateful to have let go of a very guilt based, shame based faith, you know, I always felt like I have to measure up somehow, I have to be penitent enough, I have to be [00:11:00] pious enough, I have to feel certain kinds of feelings in order for my faith to count to make God happy you And along with that was, you know, a very particular idea of who God is, God as sort of judgy and quick to be offended and very concerned with my following all the rules in exactly the right order.

Debie: I'm very glad to have let go of that because that was a tremendous burden to carry around. It was doomed to fail and just doomed to leave me kind of feeling ashamed and inadequate all the time. So I'm glad to have let go of that. I'm glad to have let go of very strict and conservative views on gender and sexuality the role of women in the church.

Debie: You know, I grew up having no exposure to women, you know, who do what you do, who can stand at the altar and preach and, you know, preside in all of those things. So I'm glad to have let go of that, for sure. I I am grateful, though, when I look back on my upbringing, I'm grateful that I was introduced to the Bible very young, [00:12:00] and that I was given a really rich literacy in it, because have carried that forward, even though my way of reading is different now.

Debie: I'm grateful to have been grounded early in that language and that, you know, tradition. And I think also one of the gifts of evangelicalism is that it teaches you very early on that these questions around who is God, who am I, what does it mean to, live a meaningful life. These are really important, urgent questions and they are worth pursuing for a lifetime, right?

Debie: There's nothing casual about it. There's nothing tepid about it. This is the good stuff. And there's a call to pursue it. So I've held on to that. I do it differently now, but I hold on to that, that sense of priority and urgency.


Tara: I was just thinking about the quote from Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak, where he asks Buechner's phrase, where does your deep joy meet the world's deep need?

Tara: And I, remember coming across this book much later in, my adult life [00:13:00] and that's the question of purpose that I also hold on to from my origins of faith, but I do also answer it differently.

Debie: Exactly. Exactly.

Debie: Part of the journey of faith and maturing in your faith is to be able to look back over your life and see the ways in which the Spirit of God was present and speaking and, nurturing and feeding, even in times when you didn't think that was what was happening.

Debie: And sometimes we don't know it in the moment. You have to have enough distance to be able to look back. You know, when I first left evangelicalism, my feelings were mostly negative because I needed, the space. I needed time to process. But now having had that time and space, I can look back and say, okay, like these were actually gifts.

Debie: These were good things and I can carry these forward without taking everything with me. There is a kind of process of selection that can be good.

Tara: Yeah. think that the simplest way I would explain it from my perspective is that there was this [00:14:00] shift from heavy expectation and perfectionism.

Debie: Yes.

Tara: Into a experience of expansion in grace.

Debie: I love that. Yes, exactly. That's a really beautiful way of saying it.

Tara: That is always a work in progress.

Debie: Yes. Yes. Constantly. It's never over. Yeah.

Tara: And so I, came across this quote Debbie, I wanted to share it with you and it's attributed to Jaylene Moreau. It says that the path isn't a straight line. It's a spiral. You continually come back to the things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.

Debie: Amen. That's exactly right. Yeah. Yep. I mean, when people ask me kind of what is my sort of metaphor for the spiritual life, I often say it's a spiral staircase. Because sometimes you feel like you're just going in circles, rehashing the same thing, asking the same questions over and over again, and it's only [00:15:00] in retrospect that you can look down and say, Oh, actually, I've also been ascending and I'm circling but I'm also rising and even though the questions keep coming back, they come back in different ways.

Debie: , I bring new perspectives and new wisdom a new revelation to those same questions. And so I think that's absolutely right. It is a spiral. It's not linear.

Tara: I don't know if you had this experience as a child, but there were also these choose your own adventure books.

Debie: yeah, of course.

Tara: Yeah. And so there's a sense of like, do I choose A or B? And then do I go to page, you know, 27 or 82

Debie: Yeah.

Debie: The nice thing is to recognize that there's grace in all of that because I used to think Well, if I go to page 80, what if that's the wrong page? Like what if I, you know, I'm spo I should have gone to page one 50, but instead to realize that God is really generous and God will meet us on page 50 or page one 50 and there will be beauty and gifts and hardships and challenges, all of those things regardless, [00:16:00] and God will still accompany us.

Debie: So it's not a question of choosing just the right thing every single time. It doesn't have to be that way.

Tara: Hmm. That's very freeing. Yeah. And I think for, folks who are in , period of questioning or sojourn or discernment about spiritual life. That's important to understand that God meets them in all of it.

Debie: Yes. The God is already there. There's no place we're going to want to go where God isn't already present. Exactly.

Tara: For someone who is in that in between, what would you say to them?

Debie: Oh, I'd say you are loved. You are known and held even though you can't always feel it. I would say take your time. Be very patient with yourself. It took many years to get to where you are right now and so you're not gonna magic wand your way out of it necessarily in just a few days or months or, you know, it's a lifelong process.

Debie: I would [00:17:00] say find companions, if you can, whether that's in a faith community, if you're in a place where you can enter into one, if you need to take a break from that, fine. Find it outside. You know, it could be through books, it could be through support groups, it could be through a spiritual director, a counselor, but don't try to go it alone.

Debie: You need help. That's what I'd say.

Tara: about, some conversation around this idea of holy shenanigans.

Debie: One of the pivotal moments for me where God just met me and surprised me in a beautiful way along this journey was about 12 years ago. That's when my family moved to California, , all the way across the country from where I'd grown up.

Debie: And I think that's when I finally felt enough permission to really start exploring other church traditions than what I've been raised with. I think I needed the geographic distance to be able to give myself that freedom and permission.

Debie: So it was summer, I walked into this Episcopal church in my neighborhood and, you know you know, I was new to all of it, new to liturgical traditions, new to anything but evangelicalism. And I [00:18:00] don't even know what led me to just wander into this place. And I sit down and there stands up an Asian American woman priest, all new to me, like, what?

Debie: And and I just sat there in the service and watched her preach. I watched her preside over the Eucharist. I went up and received bread and wine from her and I just bawled through the service. Cause I had not seen any of those things, right? Someone who looks like me, someone who. is a woman and is allowed to do all of these things, which I had never seen a woman do, didn't even know that was okay.

Debie: I just felt like God was kind of opening the doors up wide and saying like, there's more, there's so much more than you know, and it's Okay for you to step into it and explore it. And then over the few months after that, I think I drove this poor priest nut. She was so kind to me. I would go to her office and I'd say, I have 10 million questions and we'd just sit and she would talk to me.

Debie: And [00:19:00] I then found out that she's also from an evangelical background. So she had walked this path before. So she really became a mentor for me. And so that was a way in which God very concretely showed up at a key point in my journey and kind of showed me a way forward , through this person. And so that's a big highlight of my, faith journey.

Tara: Thank you so much for sharing that. Yeah. I love when, God shows up in the least expected spaces and then sometimes we're even like, how did I even end up in this 

Debie: Yes, exactly. Exactly. It was a wonderful surprise. 

Tara: There's the same thing that, you know, all those who wander are not lost. And I wonder, if there is anything else that you would like to say to those who feel like they're lost or they've gone too far, too far away, what would you say?

Debie: would say that our God is a God of lost things. God is always [00:20:00] seeking out and searching for the lost. I mean, there's so many wonderful parables about this, right? God leaves the 99 sheep and goes after the one that's lost. God pursues , the prodigal son who's wandered off and feels like he's beyond redemption.

Debie: God is the housewife, , peeking through the corners with her little brush, trying to find that lost coin in some dusty corner. This is what God does. God is absolutely in pursuit of and in love with. the lost and delights in seeking out the lost. So there is no place you can go that is outside of that amazing, generous seeking out of God's heart towards you.

Tara: In your book, you talked about your grandmother being an image of that symbol of the divine seeking, Yes. and welcoming. 

Debie: When I was growing up, we'd go back to India not every summer, but as often as my parents could afford it, we'd go and spend some weeks back in Kerala it's a very long plane journey. And then the cars and the [00:21:00] taxis. And by the time we finally got to my grandmother's village, we were exhausted and it was usually dark.

Debie: There's no reliable electricity. And so we're kind of wandering through these tiny little country roads. And then finally, we'd get to a point and we'd see my grandmother and she'd be standing outside the door of the house with a lantern or a candle lit, just kind of extending the light out for us to be able to find our way to the house.

Debie: And, , we'd get out of the car and she'd wrap her arms around us and kiss us and welcome us. And then there'd be delicious food waiting for us inside the house. And it was just like, you're home. You are welcome. You are safe. You've made it. You're here now. Be nurtured. You know, be loved. And so for me, when I think about her, and she died a few years ago at the age of 100 I just think of God.

Debie: That is what God is always doing, holding that candle out for us on a dark road and welcoming us home.

Tara: thank you so much for that. I wonder if there's a segment of the [00:22:00] book that we haven't touched on so far that you might like to share with our listeners.

Debie: Sure, so there's a chapter in the book called Nowhere to Lay His Head. It's a chapter about leaving, and it's actually looking at Jesus through the lens of kind of being bicultural. Like, what if we imagine that Jesus, Himself had to kind of straddle these two worlds of being human and being God and not quite belonging easily , in any place while he was on earth.

Debie: This little section kind of opens that up as a possibility, as a way for us , to think about Jesus. The creatures of the earth, Jesus tells an eager scribe in the Gospel of Matthew, have homes that tether them to their surroundings, homes that shelter them, homes that define their boundaries. But Jesus, Jesus has nothing of the sort. No bed, no table, no room, no roof, no shelter, no place in the world to call his very own. Every time I read these words, I feel a too familiar sadness, [00:23:00] the sadness of not belonging, the grief of my grandparents who stayed behind in India to preserve a Nada that was destined to change no matter what.

Debie: The sadness of my parents, who bore the psychological and cultural brunt of leaving. My own sadness at finding myself betwixt and between. In the years since I left evangelicalism, this sadness has been a constant companion. My grief sits right alongside the fear that perhaps I'm a traitor, a culturally disloyal daughter to the long and storied religious heritage that formed me.

Debie: No matter where I go, I wrestle with the sense of betrayal. Is it ungrateful to walk away? Selfish? Arrogant? It's all too easy to allow this grief to dominate my faith. If I'm not attentive and careful, I can give myself over to a permanent sense of too muchness. As in, I'm too Indian, too American, too feminine, too feminist, too pious, too skeptical, too earnest, too [00:24:00] jaded to be in a Christian community at all. I wonder if Jesus feels this way when his visit back to Nazareth falls apart. Perhaps he worries that he's betraying his family by choosing a spiritual path they don't understand. The next time he interacts with his mother, maybe they talk about the shame he causes her among their neighbors, and maybe her embarrassment grieves him. Surely there are moments when he wishes that his path could be less costly, less treacherous. Whenever the cost of my own leaving feels acute, it helps me to think of Jesus as bicultural, belonging at once in heaven and on earth. in Nazareth and outside of it. In choosing to draw near to us, he straddles a tremendous both and, and he lives into that dissonance with love, patience, curiosity, and long suffering.

Tara: Thank you so much for that reading. 

Tara: I think that there [00:25:00] are many people that are feeling in that in between,

Debie: Yes. 

Tara: and that will be graciously met by you and your words and your experience and your courage 

Tara: To this journey, this journey of authenticity and, relationship with God for the divine.

Debie: Thanks, Tara, very much.

Tara: Where can people connect with your work?

Debie: Sure. So, my website is DebbieThomas. com. Debbie with one B. And there you can find some of my essays. You can find talks that I've given. That sort of thing. I write, again, for the Christian Century magazine, so I have a column there. So you can find a lot of my work there. And then through the books.

Debie: And I'm not super great with social media, but I'm on Facebook , and Instagram. So occasionally I show up there. 

Tara: And this book , is published by Broadleaf, correct?

Debie: Yes, exactly. It's available wherever books are sold, either [00:26:00] directly through them or, you know, Amazon or wherever you like to get your books.

Tara: Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful book with me ahead of time. And I encourage people to get their copy of a faith of many rooms, inhabiting more spacious Christianity as a means of accompaniment in their own spiritual journeys.

Tara: In conclusion of our time together, Debbie, do you have word of blessing or invocation you might want to give to our listeners?

Debie: sure. So I thought I would just read the very last paragraph of The book ends with a sort of poem, prayer that's entitled, Why I Stay. Because I think part of our work on this journey is to figure out why we're staying. Like, where have we found home? Why is it meaningful for us?

Debie: What is it that draws us back to God? Just like with the disciple Thomas, it can't be somebody else's experience or somebody else's answer. It has to become our own. And so the book ends with this extended poem in the form of a prayer to God, kind of explaining why I stay. So I'm just going to read the last little section of that.

Debie: Why [00:27:00] I stay. Because you are not who I thought you were, so I must wait for revelation. Because I need someone to wrestle, and you meet me at the river. Because this is no ordinary hunger, and your mana alone will suffice. Because I will drown unless you part this water. Because the world is dark, but it shimmers at its edges.

Debie: Because I am wild inside, and you are not a tame lion. Because you suffered, and only a suffering God can help. Because my ache for you is the beating heart of my aliveness. Because I am still your stubborn child, and I insist on resurrection. Amen.

Tara: And may it be so. And for you, Debbie, may you know that you are beloved and held and accompanied on your journey

Tara: and for accompanying us. On our journey as well.

Debie: Thank you very [00:28:00] much.


Tara: thanks again, Debbie, for making some room for our questions about God and religion, and especially for walking us through this journey in your book, A Faith of Many Rooms.

Tara: To connect with Debbie, check out her website, d e b i e t h o m a s. That's DebbieThomas. com. Thanks also to Ian Eastman for sound editing and Broadleaf Books for connecting me with Debbie's wonderful work. Thank you to our HSP listeners. As we breathe more room and more space into our spiritual lives, it's my honor to walk alongside you as you ask all those big questions and experience holy shenanigans.

Tara: That surprise, encourage, redirect, [00:29:00] and turn life upside down all in the name of love. Welcome to this spiritual adventure that is always sacred, but never stuffy. To support this work, stop by www. buymeacoffee. com backslash Tara L. Eastman. So let's keep asking our big questions, shall we? And to encourage you for the adventures ahead.

Tara: Listen to these words from T. S. Eliot. At the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time. 

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