A Blessedly Tense Week

For the last two weeks or so, I had been in the midst of a spiritual beating. If you have ever seriously been a part of a faith for a long time, you know there are moments when you question the validity of what you’re doing with your belief, time, and gifts. For me, this was a hefty instance of that. Years and years of doubt and resentment came boiling to the surface in the form of apathy and denial.

I’ve always struggled with certain aspects of orthodox Christian belief. The Trinity, Church authority, and the idea that a corpse rose from the dead 2,000 years ago all fail to appeal to me at times. In the last two weeks, this sense of resistance was heightened to the point that I thought I was becoming what would essentially be a Unitarian with very little investment in traditional Christianity outside of believing in one God. I felt I was being torn from something I had always loved, defended, and tried (unsuccessfully) to follow.

Fast forward to Maundy Thursday.

I was driving to our church, an Episcopal parish, representing all I was currently detaching from. Frankly, I was dreading sitting through the foot washing and Communion service.

At the end of my rope, I decided to pray. I asked God to lead me and guide me to the truth. I wasn’t strong enough to try to manage the journey I was on, and I was desperate to experience some level of peace.

Welp. God showed up.

I walked in the doors and was greeted by the smile of our wonderful clergy. I took a seat and prepared for what I thought would be a liturgical ass-whooping, only to be pleasantly surprised by a rapidly building spiritual experience that I’ve only had maybe one or two times in my life.

The music and readings aligned perfectly with where I was. My favorite hymn (“What Wondrous Love is This”) preceded the Gospel reading, and when our deacon read John’s foot-washing account, I was undone. I actually felt tears forming in my eyes as I was overwhelmed with God’s simple response to all of the complicated theological and religious pondering I had been losing sleep over.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

Just like that. I settled into worship with a renewed sense of comfort that I’d been trying to reach for all of my Christian life.

So what’s the point of this story?

I can tell you it’s not to dump on Unitarians. It’s also not to tell you that a desperate prayer will fix whatever problem you face. I also should say that I don’t intend to stop questioning and examining the faith to which I have dedicated myself.

I suppose the teaching I want to put forth is the one I received from God in that moment of brokenness.

“It’s not about that stuff.”

It’s not about all of humanity’s formulas concerning the substance and essence of God. It’s not about the historicity of the miraculous claims of the Bible. It’s not about being right.

It’s about actually, honestly, and expectantly seeking God.

The relief for me came not with answers to all of my theological questions, but with God’s presence with me in a moment of deep need. I can say this was the first time I remember actually opening myself up to that possibility, with no exceptions, add-ons, or parameters. It was a moment of actually seeking what God had in mind for me instead of trying to make God work through my own sense of logic and reason.

So what about all of those other details? They are, after all, pretty important.

I know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a story that has changed my life. I have experienced the truth of its teachings firsthand, and I do believe that God’s nature and work are revealed in the Incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. For now, for me, that is enough. I am more than content to sit in that tension, not knowing exactly how it all works or what the “historical reality” might be.

There’s no real “wrap-up” here. I simply hope that this testimony of mine is useful and edifying for you. Life isn’t about having everything figured out and in place. It’s a journey on which we are to learn about God, each other, and ourselves, and sometimes all we can do is sit in the glorious tension of it all.

Peace be with you!

And The Lord Saith, “Do Nothing”

But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur. — Luke 1:20, NRSV

Traditionally, we look at this passage in Scripture and proceed to contrast the story of Zechariah with that of Mary. Zechariah disbelieves Gabriel’s message while Mary embraces it. In standard teachings, Zechariah is merely the negative foil to Mary’s exquisite faith, apart from being the faithful father of John the Baptist.

When I stumbled across this passage recently, though, something different caught my attention. When Zechariah asks, “How will I know this is so?”, he is looking for security, assurance. Sure, he is doing it in the face of a divine messenger who literally appears out of nowhere, but it is something we all do. We crave security, and we want to have as much control as we can in life.

In ancient near eastern culture, childbearing was the greatest sign of blessing. For Israel in particular, bearing a child was a physical reminder of God’s promise to prosper the nation, making them as numerous as the stars of heaven (Genesis 15:5). This is why the Bible has such strong opinions on marriage and procreative sexuality. It is also why Zechariah and Elizabeth were considered to be in disgrace, because, despite their righteousness, they were a barren couple.

When we understand that, Zechariah’s skepticism (which mirrors Abraham and Sarah’s), makes sense. He wants to be assured that when he tells his wife (and others) that they’re going to have a baby, it freakin’ happens! Otherwise, their disgrace would be amplified.

The first problem with this, though, is Zechariah’s source. Gabriel, the messenger of God, is probably not one to come play a cruel prank. This is a divine message, not some cosmic episode of Punk’d.

Second, and more importantly, there are no guarantees in life. It’s a cliche, but it’s a lesson we desperately need to learn, just like Zechariah. You see, Zechariah is being told what’s going to happen (“until the day these things occur,” 1:20). Outside of sex with his wife, there is nothing Zechariah is expected to do to bring things to fruition. The results do not depend on him, and we all know how scary it is when important aspects of our lives rest outside of our ability to control them.

In response to Zechariah’s questions, Gabriel does something that seems punitive. I mean, he takes away the guy’s speech, which also probably made seducing Elizabeth hilarious. I imagine lots of eyebrow waggling and gestures… Anyway.

When we look a little closer, though, Gabriel’s action is more of a “blessing in disguise.” All Zechariah can do is sit back, go (quietly) about his regular life, and wait to see what God does. This is also all we can do.

I know this isn’t what some of us want to hear, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Whether it’s a job interview, pregnancy, asking for a date, or awaiting diagnosis, there is a broad spectrum of life events with outcomes we cannot determine. We normally view this as a horrible aspect of living, and many of us refuse to accept or admit it, but what if it is actually a blessing?

When we obsess over the details and outcomes of life various issues, are we being healthy? When last I looked, continuous stress contributes to declines in physical and emotional health (it’s science). Our enjoyment of life is made less and less possible as we try to guide (force?) life to go the way we would prefer.

But what if I told you all you were in charge of is living your life? What if, instead of fighting or fearing the truth of our limited power, we embraced it? Life would consist of actual living, where we take care of business, but also make space for the Spirit of God to do its work. Uncertainty would serve as a reminder to take time to enjoy our short time on this earth as opposed to obsessing over it.

I believe this was Gabriel’s message to Zechariah, and it is God’s message to us. If Gabriel (and God) wanted to punish him, the birth of John could have been given to someone else. Instead, Zechariah gets to learn a powerful lesson about his own powerlessness as he also experiences the birth of his son. In the end, both of these things prove to be sources of joy.

So for us, that which normally worries us can actually provide us happiness. We cannot control everything in life, nor are there any guarantees. When all we can do is wait and see, perhaps it is best we employ a bit of faith and spend our time doing what we can by loving those around us, honoring the gift of life and the One who gives it to us.

I’m not suggesting some “pie in the sky” view of life. I suffer from depression, and I know many of you may suffer from anxiety. It’s important that you realize, dear reader, that I am not advocating the view that anxiety, stress, and worry are sinful. Rather, I am affirming the need for us to engage in self-care and seek treatment so that we may live life fully. It is true, however, that we must be willing to admit when we are being unhealthy, accept our dependence, and find a way to move forward.

So no matter what you have going on in your life, I hope you will accept this teaching from Zechariah. Yes, there are things you and I cannot control, and worry is an inevitable response, but we can also learn to respond with faith. When we understand our own limited power and that each day is ultimately a gift, we are free to guide our efforts away from what we cannot affect and toward those people and causes in our lives that mean the most to us. This is God’s gift to us, and I pray you’ll join me in accepting it.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Doubt: What I Wish I Had Known

Doubt isn’t a thing fondly spoken of in faith circles. James tells us that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” and this person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8, NRSV). Such opinions abound in the Scriptures, but I can’t help but feel a little rebellion toward them. After all, it is unreasonable to expect humans to believe in what cannot be seen with unyielding resolve.

For some reason, though, this seems to be the standard for the religious of the world. Doubt means a lack of faith, which puts one in danger of a lesser standing in the eyes of the Divine. Anything that could cause a person to reconsider their faith, traditions, or core belief system is a threat to the fragile realities we tend to build for ourselves.

I witnessed this first-hand in college. I was part of two pretty conservative ministries, and as a history major with a geology minor, evolution was just a fact for me, as it still is today. Little did I know that when I got into a conversation about Genesis with my small groups, my invitations back to those gatherings would cease and I found myself in search of a new spiritual home.

When I presented the evidence for an evolutionary view of biology and history that conflicted with Creationism, I was met with anger that seemed… panicked. I didn’t understand it, and I also felt there was something wrong with me.

This feeling continued even through seminary. Why couldn’t I believe like all of my classmates? What was making me question everything? Where did this resistance come from that kept me from accepting everything as it appeared to be?

I sought out counsel and was told “the devil was trying to throw me off course.” That didn’t help. Other people said I just needed to “fake it” until I was convinced. That came across as basically being advised to brainwash myself.

It was only when I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard that I found something useful. Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian famous for his understanding of doubt and faith as realities that play off of each other, best summed up in his quote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” For Kierkegaard, faith is something that always exists beside doubt, as faith, truly expressed, is a decision to believe in spite of a lack of what is considered proper evidence.

This changed the game for me. Suddenly, my doubting nature wasn’t a curse, but something natural to me. It was a characteristic that removed all pretense and forced me to decide whether I was going to live in light of faith or something else. Faith, hope, and love became conscious decisons rather than passively received and executed spiritual gifts.

Odds are that you’ve shared my experience in some way, especially if you come from a Christian background. Doubt can often be a source for guilt and despair, even outside of the religious world. The “go-getters” are the true believers who never seem to waver or step back for examination. To be successful, we must believe, confidently striding forward in all our glory, right?

Nonsense. Life takes all kinds, and your doubt is essential to making sure we don’t get too full of ourselves. When no one asks questions or challenges the status quo, growth and positive change become impossible.

Doubt serves to keep us all in check, ensuring that every decision we make about what we believe and do in life is intentional. While an excess of ever-present doubt can be disheartening, tempering our words and actions with the possibility that we might be wrong produces a humility we could use more of these days.

So maybe you feel like you’re always the “Debbie Downer.” Maybe you feel like this world has no place for you because you don’t connect with our perceived cultural norms. Perhaps you feel flawed because you struggle to accept the dominant beliefs that surround you.

Well take it from me. You’re not flawed, broken, sick, or lost. You are gifted, loved, and here on purpose. So embrace the doubt in life, that the faith you choose to hold may mean all the more.

Peace be with you!