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My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts
Andrea Palpant Dilley as a child with her missionary family Kenya.
May 5th, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Faith: Returning to church, despite my doubts

Editor's note: Andrea Palpant Dilley is the author of “Faith and Other Flat Tires.”

By Andrea Palpant Dilley, Special to CNN

During my junior year in college, I took a butter knife from my mother’s kitchen  and scraped the Christian fish decal off the back bumper of the Plymouth hatchback I’d inherited from my older brother. Stripping off that sticker foreshadowed the day, a few years later, that I would walk out of church.

The reasons for my discontent were complicated. By most standards, I had a healthy childhood.  I grew up the daughter of Quaker missionaries in a rural Kenyan community that laid the foundation for my faith. I spent the rest of my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, raised in a stable Presbyterian church that gave me hymns and mission trips and potluck dinners.

I was surrounded by smart, conscientious Christians, the kind of people who read 19th century Russian novels and took meatloaf to firefighters when much of eastern Washington state went up in flames in the fall of 1991.

When I started into my skeptic phase, my Christian community gave me space to struggle. They listened to my doubts about faith. They took my questions seriously.

And yet when I turned 23 I left the church.

Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.

More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?

These questions didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d spent time in high school volunteering in refugee camps in Kenya and in college working with families on welfare in central Washington. I saw hungry babies. I walked into homes that were piled with garbage and dirty laundry.

In an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, I held AIDS babies and worked with disabled kids who’d been left at the front gates of the orphanage by parents who couldn’t afford to feed them. I saw things that I couldn’t make sense of as a Christian.

Walking out of church was a way of saying “To hell with it; I’m done.”

For two years, I skipped church. My Bible gathered dust on the shelf. The local bars became my temples. I indulged in the cliché rebellions of a Christian girl, smoking cigarettes and drinking hard alcohol. I got involved with men twice my age without thinking twice about it.  I wanted a break from being “good.”

And then, strangely, I woke up one morning at age 25, climbed into my car, and drove downtown to attend a 10 a.m. church service. I won’t relate here the whole story of how I came back to the church. But if I had to follow the standard testimonial narrative for Christians, the script for my life story would go something like this:

Step 1: Grow up in a Christian church.

Step 2: Go off to college away from said church.

Step 3: Be exposed to the enticements of secular life.

Step 4: Try drugs and cigarettes and Pearl Jam.

Step 5: Leave the church because of aforementioned enticements.

Step 6: Experience epiphany; realize vapidness of secular enticements.

Step 7: Return to church with penitent heart.

Step 8: Reestablish faith, discover good living.

In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.

And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.

Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.

First: My doubt belonged in church.

People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.

With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.

Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.

In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.

I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.

Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrea Palpant Dilley.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Church • Opinion

soundoff (3,753 Responses)
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    November 27, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
  2. roman2819

    Hello Andrea, thank you for sharing,

    I was not born a Christian but accepted the Lord in my youth (in a secular socierty SIngapore). I have believed for 30 years. I will be honest: Not everything that sermons say are correct. Last years, i heard a preacher said that if you are close to God, you will know what to pray and He will say yes. That is not true either.

    As I interact with Christian friends, I realize that many of us lose the conviction to pray as time goes by. Also, we face difficulties in seeking God's will.This book, Understanding Prayer, Faith and God's Will, looks at real-life problems that we face in prayer, as well as seeking God's will. It then present biblical truths NOT realized before – truths that we can see and apply in our human journey. By clarifying wrong notions about prayer and God’s will. it will change the way you see – and seek – God’s will. When faith is strengthened by knowledge and understanding, we will go on to pray and serve God with conviction. Learn more about the book at: http://www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore/book.php?w=9781620241431
    There are 12 chapters in this book:
    1. Inner Doubts
    2. What does the Bible mean?
    3. Prayer: What did Jesus Intend to tell us?
    4. "Why doesn't God answer more prayers?"
    5. To Pray Again
    6. Does Sin impede prayer?
    7. Faith in God
    8. How does God call people?
    9. Understanding God's Will
    10 Being in God's will
    11 Journey of the Bible
    12 Reading the Scripture Fruitfully

    February 2, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  3. Lorraine

    EVERYONE, although one accepts jc, and many have for over 2000 years now, and yet there is still much suffering today, does to anyone this seem to be a vicious cycle going nowhere? It was prophesied in Daniel 11:39, that this generation will be ruled by strange gods the 'fathers' Knew not; which were brought by forces, to profit, to gain. Well, this is that new generation confirmed in Daniel 2:40, of the 4th kingdom, this is us today folks; we are serving not the true Savior, and Redeemer, who is YHWH, His true name.

    Look under tetragrammaton in the back of most KJV books, ep. The 1611, you will see that the words, Lord, God replaces YHWH, His true Hebrew name, as depicted in Exodus 3:18, they replaced THE TRUE NAME YHWH, over 6800 times. YHWH IS OUR ONLY SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER, TAUGHT TO US IN ISAIAH 49:26, ISAIAH 60:16, AND in ISAIAH 43:3,11,15; NO MAN CAN BE DELIVERED FROM HIS HANDS, DEUTERONOMY 32:39, AND SAID IN MANY MORE SCRIPTURES IN THE SO CALLED OT, which also should be called 'the book of remembrance' taught in Malachi 3:16.

    Doing other gods is why we still have mayhem, and suffering on this earth today, for YHWH teaches us that the shepherds are not teaching His word to the flocks the right way, they lie to the flocks, in Ezekiel 34. YHWH will address this in His day, prophesied in the book of Joel, and for the controversy over in the holy land as well, Israel, Zion, in Isaiah 34:8. His righteousness is nearing, in Isaiah 51:5. To add, the only son, and firstborn YHWH says He has is in Exodus 4:22, this does not say jc, AND YOU CAN'T HAVE TWO FIRSTBORNS RIGHT?

    This is why the woman in this column writing is so dismayed, and confused with the church. Something is not right, because it is not. YHWH BLESS, all praise is to go to the creator of All 'Life' the ALMIGHTY YHWH.

    DEUTERONOMY 5, SAYS WE MUST READ THIS BOOK FROM GENESIS-MALACHI TO GET THE TRUTH FROM THE BEGINNING OF THIS BOOK, THE NT 'MUST' FULFILL THE SO CALLED OT.

    November 20, 2012 at 8:34 am |
    • Joe

      Ms. Lorraine, that doesn't work because angels were refered to as the "sons of God" in Genesis when they slept with the daughters of men and had superhero babies. Also Isaiah 52 and 53 clearly are not talking about a group of people but one person.
      Jesus was there with YHWH in the beginning, as Elohim is plural. Jesus does not claim primacy before YHWH.
      I've never met a Jewish person who articulated their beliefs from scripture, please continue to do so as there is much misunderstanding.

      January 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
    • ¿¿lol

      Nothing like an average Joe Christian re-writing the OT. LOL.

      February 2, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
  4. vjsingh.com

    John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he slept with Mary against her will, that whoever believes him to be a bast ard shall not perish but have eternal life."

    I couldn't have said it any better.

    November 13, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  5. Charleen Ecuyer

    While doubt is a common and understandable experience as we come to grips with who God truly is, it is not an attribute to embrace but to resist and combat. familylifewinners.com

    October 24, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  6. Barry

    I don't know about back to "church", but I do know we need to get back with God. Many try to find in "church" a relationship with God, one which they should have already apart from "church". One needs to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior first. This removes the barrier that seperates us from God which is sin. Once we have asked God to forgive our sins through faith in Jesus and His finished work on our behalf, then we will satisfy that spiritual hunger that "church" can never satisfy. Today, I think the true Church is going underground out of necesity, since many churches are very corrupt and have compromised the Word of God and brought in the doctrines and traditions of men, and of the world. Recieve Jesus, and you will know His peace.

    October 14, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
    • Chad

      barry, well said!!

      October 14, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Barry, although one accepts jc, and many have for over 2000years now, and yet there is still much sufferings today,does to anyone this seem to be a visious cycle going nowhere? It was prop hesied in Daniel 11:39, that this generation will ruled by strange gods the 'fathers' new not; which were brought by forces, to profit, to gain. Well, this is that new generation confirmed in Daniel 2:49, of the 4th kingdom, this is us today folks, we are serving not the true Savior, and Redeemer, who is YHWH, His true name.

      Look under tetragrammaton in the back of most KJV books, ep. the 1611, you will see that the words, Lord,God replaces His true Hebrew name, as depicted in Exodus 3:18, they replaced it over 6800 times. YHWH IS OUR ONLY SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER, TAUGHT TO US IN ISAIAH 49:60, ISAIAH 60:16, AND in ISAIAH 43:3,11,15; NO MAN CAN BE DELIVERED FROM HIS HANDS, DEUTERONOMY 32:39, AND SAID IN MANY MORE SCRIPTURES IN THE SO CALLED OT, also should be called 'the book of remembrance' taught in Malachi 3:16.

      Doing other gods is why we still have mayhem, and suffering on this earth today, for YHWH teaches us that the shepherds are not teaching His word to the flocks the right way, they lie to the flocks, in Ezekiel 34. YHWH will address this in His day, prophesied in the book of Joel, and for the controversy over in the holy land as well, Israel, Zion, in Isaiah 34:8. His righteousness is nearing, in Isaiah 51:5. To add, the only son, and firstborn YHWH says He has is in Exodus 4:22, this does not say jc.

      This is why the woman in this column writing is so dismayed, and confused with the church. Something is not right, because it is not. YHWH BLESS, all praise is to go to the creator of All 'Life' the ALMIGHTY YHWH.

      November 20, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • Lorraine

      Barry, CORRECTION: ISAIAH 49:26, YHWH IS THE ONLY SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER WE HAVE. THERE IS NO ONE WITH HIM IN DEUTERONOMY 32;39.

      November 20, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  7. waitasec

    "My doubt is actually part of my faith."???

    what senseless tripe. but whatever makes you feel all warm and fuzzy i suppose.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  8. waitasec

    grow up and face the reality that life is not all what you want it to be.
    life is what you make of it or how you respond to it's indifference. obviously as a child you were indoctrinated and you felt
    like you wanted some freedom and were upset that your sky daddy didn't approve. you never left.

    October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  9. Atheism is Great for Kids and Grown-Ups Too!

    It's really best for all people including children to have an agnostic approach to god, and an atheistic approach to all religion. It keeps things simple for kids, and lets them be all that they can be. They just need to be taught that some things, like all religion, were just made up by salesmen and politicians from long ago**; and that other things, like god, we really don't know a damn thing about.

    Atheists have strong minds and don't need a religion. Sometimes, religious folk run and hide their misdeeds within their religion (and by doing so, they disserve society). Sometimes, religious folk are easily offended when someone mocks their make-believe characters – and, as we can see they can get really CRAZY!

    Religions are just big old evil clubs – each trying to out do each other and inspiring hate and division along the way (disguised as love).

    So instead of praying to make-believe people, get a good cup of tea and go on and sit down and collect your damn thoughts. My goodness.

    ** (yes, charlatan spam started long before the Bible; what would make you think it hadn't?)

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    September 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  10. John David

    the first thing I noticed when I got into thi

    September 14, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
  11. Jack

    Being in here reminds m

    September 4, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  12. myfamilyneedsamiracle

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    August 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  13. Joe

    As I understand it, Moses went up the mountain to see God. Upon his return he found that his people were worshiping a golden calf. Where did they get the gold? Is it possible that they stole it from their Egyptian masters? If so is it possible that the Egyptians in pursuit were merely trying to capture the thieves who stole the gold?

    July 29, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
    • hungry

      Exodus 32; 2-4

      2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.

      August 13, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Jean-Baptiste

      You cant take the book of exodus literately, it was written during the babylonian exile, based on oral traditions of the jewish people, the events described are myth, but not myth as we understand it in english, it was an attempt to explain something that happened in language everybody would understand. There was most likely several small exoduses. This isn't proof that God had nothing to do with it, its just that the book needs to be read with a clear understanding of context.

      September 16, 2012 at 12:40 am |
  14. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness.
    Romans 1:20-"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
    John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
    “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Albert Camus

    July 9, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he slept with Mary against her will, that whoever believes him to be a bast ard shall not perish but have eternal life.".

      FACT

      July 9, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • PAUL

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZaNZ-jlZ-w&w=640&h=390]

      July 11, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
    • moi

      Perfect system of life? Have you been outside of this great country? Have you seen women being beheaded by their Taliban husbands, children starving, babies left in buckets on the side of the road, death and starvation and injustice everywhere..... Where is this perfect world you speak of?

      July 13, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Lorraine

      Misled, although one accepts jc, and many have for over 2000 years now, and yet there is still much suffering today, does to anyone this seem to be a vicious cycle going nowhere? It was prophesied in Daniel 11:39, that this generation will be ruled by strange gods the 'fathers' new not; which were brought by forces, to profit, to gain. Well, this is that new generation confirmed in Daniel 2:49, of the 4th kingdom, this is us today folks; we are serving not the true Savior, and Redeemer, who is YHWH, His true name.

      Look under tetragrammaton in the back of most KJV books, ep. The 1611, you will see that the words, Lord, God replaces YHWH, His true Hebrew name, as depicted in Exodus 3:18, they replaced it over 6800 times. YHWH IS OUR ONLY SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER, TAUGHT TO US IN ISAIAH 49:60, ISAIAH 60:16, AND in ISAIAH 43:3,11,15; NO MAN CAN BE DELIVERED FROM HIS HANDS, DEUTERONOMY 32:39, AND SAID IN MANY MORE SCRIPTURES IN THE SO CALLED OT, which also should be called 'the book of remembrance' taught in Malachi 3:16.

      Doing other gods is why we still have mayhem, and suffering on this earth today, for YHWH teaches us that the shepherds are not teaching His word to the flocks the right way, they lie to the flocks, in Ezekiel 34. YHWH will address this in His day, prophesied in the book of Joel, and for the controversy over in the holy land as well, Israel, Zion, in Isaiah 34:8. His righteousness is nearing, in Isaiah 51:5. To add, the only son, and firstborn YHWH says He has is in Exodus 4:22, this does not say jc.

      This is why the woman in this column writing is so dismayed, and confused with the church. Something is not right, because it is not. YHWH BLESS, all praise is to go to the creator of All 'Life' the ALMIGHTY YHWH.

      November 20, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Lorraine

      CORRECTION: ISAIAH 49:26, OF OUR SAVIOR, AND REDEEMER IT'S YHWH.

      November 20, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  15. TIMOTHY61

    An Atheist is simply a person that has not met God yet.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • moi

      Many atheists have met "god", and then later realized he was a figment of humanities imagination.

      July 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  16. moi

    The author isn't very bright. Church-going and "clean living" do not necessarily go hand in hand..... AND being "secular" and living a healthy lifestyle are NOT mutually exclusive. It's completely possible to be "secular" and NOT partake in bars, drugs, smoking and sleeping around. The author's pathetic attempt at defying church dogma was superficial. I challenge her to look a little deeper into science, history, and the roots of religion. THEN she might be able to write an interesting article.....

    July 9, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  17. Chris

    I grew up in the Catholic tradition, Catholic schools, Catholic ceremonies such as confession, confirmations, weddings etc.

    But as an adult I don't go to church. I don't accept any one religion's explanation of everything. And I absolutely accept science as far as it currently takes us, and am certainly turned off by religion when it disagrees with a scientific discovery that calls its dogma into question.

    If I ever decide to take my young kids to church it will only be to let them know what culture / tradition they come from and to keep them away from fundamentalists and Scientology for example. Should it give them a sense of community then that's fine too.

    June 26, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  18. dougaussie

    theres things they don't tell you in church, like did Jesus say on the cross to the thief..Today you will be with me or...today i tell you, you will be with me. But how could he be with him in paradise when it is a fact Jesus went down into hell and then rose from the dead, he didn't go up into heaven, cause he said in the garden to mary "stop clinging to me i haven't ascended" and he had the appearance of someone who had been beaten up...for 40 days he was like that because thomas could see the wounds in Jesus side and hands, he is still scarred. Just thought i'd say that.

    June 25, 2012 at 3:49 am |
    • Caleb

      One must take into consideration that Jesus, was both fully God and fully man, to try to answer the question that Jesus said to the thief on the cross beside Him, "today, you will be with in paradise." I say this, that though Christ hadn't ascended, but would ascend later, the thief would still go to be with God in paradise, and since Jesus was not only man but God as well, Jesus kept His word to the thief. Please take this into consideration, I do not offer this comment as a means to say I'm right and your wrong, but to try to offer an explanation of why Christs word were true.

      June 28, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  19. Toma Joel

    Thus says The Lord concerning that which is obvious, a warning made plain, which shall go greatly unheeded by those with veiled heads: This is but the first of many things, which men in the churches have built up in their pride, that shall be struck!...

    For they build themselves up for show, a false goodness...

    Foolish servants, who forsake the poor and the needy,
    In favor of the praises of men...

    FALSE GLORY! Says The Lord in His jealousy.

    For their works are perverse in My sight, and their words contemptible. Therefore, because they have robbed Me, I will rob them. I will tear them in pieces, with every foundation collapsing... No wall shall be left standing... And they shall become as those, whom they have forsaken. And they shall no more preach from their finely-crafted pulpits, standing tall among all their expensive ornaments, broadcasting lies with all their purchased devices.

    I am The Lord!...

    I will not share My glory!...

    Neither shall they pollute My name, anymore!

    Behold, all these great churches of men,
    Who have accomplished great gain in the world,
    Shall become the offscouring among the nations...

    Says The Lord.

    http://www.TrumpetCallofGodonline.com

    June 24, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  20. Canandcant

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
    • ajoseph1234

      Only reason you're an atheist – denial.

      June 21, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • niknak

      Only reason you are a theist, ignroance.

      June 22, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • hwh2012

      To be a Christian, meets raping and plundering foreign countries is okay, as long as you get your sugar, wool, rice ...

      June 23, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • sharemyday

      Wow. You're really smart. I hope God is impressed with your reasoning when you stand before Him on judment day and tell Him all about why you don't believe in Him.

      August 5, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.