So apparently, I am doing a once a year post now...
My dear friend Betsy recently commented on how she missed having me as part of the blogging world. This made me stop to consider why I haven't reentered it, even now that my quality of life is significantly better than it was a year or two ago, and when I am now at home with more time on my hands to write. I decided that somewhere along the way, I felt like I'd lost my blogging voice. However, as I was thinking through and discussing with Heath a speaking assignment from our pastor, Paul, I felt like I actually had some things to say again -- like maybe I was gaining back the voice that I once had. Maybe I'll manage to post more than once a year after this. At any rate, I decided to start by posting the text of notes I created for Heath and my turn at speaking at the church retreat. Since I barely followed this text at all when I spoke, I'll link to it on Wheatland's Facebook page in case anyone is interested in seeing what I'd actually meant to say. :-) Here it is:
Paul asked us to share a little bit of what we had learned from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan (Jim) Smith. So, I tried to think through how exactly my understanding and practice of faith has changed over the last several years, and which pieces of that fit in with the teaching from the book. Really, the book touches on almost every aspect of my evolving understanding of God and faith, but I thought I’d address the first four points the book makes and how my understanding in those areas has changed. The first four points are: God is good, God is trustworthy, God is generous, God is love.
It’s not that I didn’t know before that God is good, or that He is trustworthy and generous and the epitome of love. But that understanding was sometimes clouded or hindered by my own hangups, and still is to some degree. It is a continual process of internalizing the truth. Jim Smith points out in the chapter on God’s goodness that “My own experiences of disappointment with God say more about me and my expectations than they do about God.... Jesus never promises that our lives will be free of struggle....We should expect to go through heartache and pain, suffering and loss, because they are part of what it means to be human, and they can be useful in our development.” I’ve understood for most of my Christian life that God didn’t promise that believers’ lives would be easy -- I never bought into the health and wealth Gospel. But acknowledging these truths intellectually and applying them to my life are two different things. This is the area I still struggle in the most -- continuing to believe that God is good, trustworthy, and loving, even if life is hard, and not getting angry or feeling distant from God when difficulties arise. I think I am more comfortable now than I was five or six years ago with not understanding why things happen the way they do, with accepting that life just is the way it is sometimes.
It’s funny, even though I have acknowledged for years what is taught in the book, that my troubles don’t mean God is angry at me or punishing me, that they are just part of the human experience, I still spent a lot of energy looking for a system that would ensure that life was as easy as it could be for me -- that I was following all the right Christian things to do so that I would be blessed as much as possible and avoid heartache as much as possible. This was a remnant of the performance-based mentality that Jim addresses in the chapter on God’s generosity and which was deeply rooted in me. It’s not a bad idea to try to order your life according to wise principles, but when it starts to become a checklist of things to do right in order to make life easy, then it invites resentment and questioning when life isn’t easy, when the system doesn’t work as you think it should.
One of the things that was consistently on my list from my early teens through my mid-20’s was having a quiet time every single day. Again, it’s not a bad idea -- taking time for contemplative prayer and reading the scriptures is a very good thing. The problem is when it starts to become THE SIGN in our minds of whether or not we are in a life-sustaining relationship with God, or whether we are in danger of falling away from our faith. When that happens, a lot of guilt and shame and fear can surround the practice, rather than being motivated by the desire to connect with the good, beautiful, loving God that we know. When focusing on this one practice that we think has to happen, we can get a warped idea that our relationship with God is dependent on our performance and that he is continually disappointed in us.
The other problem with this thinking come from the fact that the daily quiet time was supposed to be a time of feeling connected to God, feeling His presence and receiving His guidance and making sense of life through His eyes. Again, these are all really good things to do! The problem was when the presence or absence of this occurring was thought of as a sign of whether one’s relationship with God was real and on track. The more I’ve lived, the more I’ve become reconciled to the idea that we won’t always feel God’s presence, and there may be days, and not just days but sometimes weeks or months, where we struggle to connect with God or to understand how He might be working. Yet that doesn’t mean that our faith isn’t real or that God isn’t still the same person we’ve known Him to be. Also, life won’t always give us an hour or even half an hour in a day to read the Bible and meditate -- anyone who has been a new mother knows this! If sustaining a relationship with God really necessitated this, then there are centuries of people who were illiterate and working almost every waking minute just to survive who missed it.
Realizing that a daily quiet time wasn’t the end-all of ways to practice faith opened me up to some of the other practices that are described in Jim’s books or that we have talked about in church, such as using prayers and readings from the Book of Common Prayer, praying the hours, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Creed. Previously, I saw these as less authentic or valid than spontaneous expressions of prayer or freshly-inspired discourses on faith. Now, I see them as a treasure and a wonderful tool for times when I feel dry and shaken and can’t find my own words. Somewhere early on in this journey of change, I realized I was being awfully arrogant to be so dismissive of anything coming out of the Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican traditions, and instead thinking all practices and material needed to come directly from the Bible only -- especially considering the very makeup of the Bible we have was selected and confirmed by those churches.
I guess all in all, my faith now versus six or seven years ago is more laid back and forgiving, less prone to judgment and black and white thinking and making checklists of “right” Christian behavior, more aware that I don’t have it all figured out, and more patient with the process.