Forms of Faith
I grew up in a Protestant denomination with certainty. God was the Father of us all, Jesus was his Son who died on the cross to save us from our sins, and the Holy Spirit was sent to guide us in our day-to-day lives. I knew all the Bible stories and could quote John 3:16 and Psalm 23.
This kind of certainty only carries you so far when growing up, though. Why did some people in my extended family believe strongly and others accept nothing of this story? If you actually read the Bible, there seem to be a lot of passages that contradict one another. Which one is true? Why are some rules followed and others not? The actions of some in church didn’t seem to match what Jesus was saying. I saw more greed and rejection and insular thinking in church than out in the world.
Things weren’t hanging together; certainty was disappearing.
I went to a Christian college despite my questions. I was full of doubt but met many who were sure. I wrote papers about liberation theology and accepting all people. I cut chapel, slept in on Sunday morning and read Bonhoeffer and Romero.
My first job as a teacher was connected to a church; attendance was required in the contract. It was a new denomination for me and even more conservative than my upbringing. I railed against rules that seemed to have nothing to do with spirituality. It felt like rules and behavior were more important than anything. I wanted out.
Circumstances and life changes led me into the Episcopal Church. The liturgy moved me and touched me in places that I didn’t know existed. Questions were both allowed and encouraged. People read and discussed different theologians who opened up worlds to me that made more sense. Love was central to faith and community. A breath of fresh air washed over me: Not everything had to make sense; not everything was literal. Stories, actions, service, reading, discussing, the common cup… I learned, I grew, I questioned, I meditated…love bloomed in and around me. Here, finally, was good news. I was home.
I served in and outside of church for years. I prayed and felt loved and accepted by God. I felt a communion with other like-minded Christians. I learned and grew and gave voice to this. Until one day I didn’t.
Life is hard. We don’t always get what we pray for. We learn disturbing things about our faith’s history. Was it an accumulation of unanswered questions and prayers? Was it loss of love and deep sadness? Somehow after years of fruitful growth and communion…it was gone. I did not feel God’s presence. Prayers didn’t come. Books and conversation didn’t help. All I felt was loss. I had learned so much…but it was all gone. I was flat.
I had been meeting with the same group of women for years to share our struggles and successes in our spiritual walks. Month after month I had nothing to say. Then year after year. They stayed by me. I had nothing to bring to them. Each week they pointed out something I said which showed a sliver of hope to them in my darkness. I didn’t see or feel it but they believed it for me.
I took time off from church, I went back to church, I talked with priests, I tried to pray without success. The void remained. Is any of this true? Is this all made up? What does it really benefit me or the world for that matter? I had no words for people who experienced loss. I couldn’t with honesty say, “I’ll pray for you.”
Is this what happens when we mature? We have to lose our faith in order to put it back together? What should we do when we are in the void waiting? Do we throw our faith out? Do we sit? How long do we wait? I couldn’t give up. Something in me couldn’t forget that God and I used to walk together. It’s all I had ever known. Even when I was young and railing against rules, I still believed in God. Would God’s presence ever return? Does maturity just mean you have to do it on your own? Take what you learned…love, community, sacrifice and go forth?
There was never a moment… a return. A relaxing began. I stopped worrying about why I didn’t feel and hear God anymore. Was it my friends’ steady encouragement—believing for me when I couldn’t believe myself? Was it the steady support of my husband who loved me, whether I believed in God or not? It somehow didn’t matter whether I had answers to my questions anymore. Life is not certain. Maybe it’s OK if my beliefs are not, too. An unexpected gift of silence came with a mindfulness practice and a restorative yoga class. Emptying my mind of clutter allowed inspiration and creativity. Was this God working in me because I stopped clenching my fists and worrying about my loss of faith?
Life will continue to be hard. Wisdom and peace are available. Sharing and giving must happen. Joy will come. I must embrace it when it happens and be thankful for slivers of hope. I’m OK with not feeling God’s presence anymore. I still hope to feel it again. For now, I want to do more in my church and community. I want to use my gifts where and when I can and support others in their gifts.
Maybe God is working in me after all?