My understanding and experience of faith has changed much in recent years. My awareness of this is not new – just a bit more acute today.
I spent the last five days with my sister. We drove down the California coast, enjoying the sun and leisurely conversation. And in the midst, we listened to Rhoda Janzen read her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home (which I cannot recommend highly enough). We both laughed hysterically at points and were stunned to silence at others. We heard our own story; one that has ebbed and flowed, changed and morphed in so many aspects of our shared and separate lives, certainly in our knowing of this thing called “faith.”
Had you asked me 10 years ago if I could have comprehended a personal experience of faith that did not, by its very nature, depend on my faith-full-ness, I wouldn’t have been able to. But today, I’d tell you that faith isn’t tied to me at all. I’d now assert that it exists – and flourishes – precisely in spite of me. I’m deeply grateful for this shift.
Though this may not be surprising to you, when even a bit of consideration is given to how I’ve spent the past 10 years of my life, the movement does seem somewhat counter-intuitive.
In 2001 I entered seminary – intent on getting my Master of Divinity degree. I took innumerable classes in theology, the history of Christianity, World Religions, and Hermeneutics. I learned Hebrew and Greek. I interpreted, exegeted, read (and read and read), and wrote. Three years later I graduated – with the piece of paper in hand that would enable me to be ordained and pastor a church, if I so chose. I did not so choose. (I was married to a pastor at the time and was 100% certain that one per household was the limit.)
One might assume that given such extensive study and intensive time in these religious realms my faith would have become more secure, more grounded and definitive, more clear on what faithfulness meant, looked like, and merited.
One might assume. One might be wrong. At least in my case. Faith was not, is not, an academic study. It blatantly defied systematic theology and every form of doctrine or dogma. My faith was tested.
Simultaneous to my seminary coursework, I acknowledged, with profound and excruciating clarity, that my marriage was falling apart. Perhaps more accurately said: I was losing my ability (and desire) to hold it together. There were many days when my quick and automatic self-talk reminded me to hold on to my faith, to believe that God’s will would have my marriage sustained, redeemed, restored. But increasingly, there were more days in which those once-easy assertions were laced with doubt. My faith wavered. Not in God; but in a paradigm that had assured me enough faith equaled a life without problems, without struggles, without pain. And if not that, at least one that looked good from all outward appearances.
The problem with this equation, of course, among so many other things, was that the weight of its success rested completely on me. I became the object of faith’s “success.” My faith would enable God’s restoration and rebuilding of what was broken. My faith would enable the grace to believe that any amount of anguish could be assuaged through perseverance and prayer. My faith would ultimately determine my marriage’s success or failure. God’s faithfulness would be directly in proportion to mine.
But that is not faith, is it? Something that rests on me? Even without the MDiv, I knew that.
Old habits die hard, though. Years of wholehearted effort, fervent prayer, and much counsel commenced as I strove to keep the spinning plates from crashing down. Years of a faith that hadn’t taught me how to unclench my fists, let go of control, and just rest.
Until I did.
The plates shattered. Noisy. Jagged. Dangerous.
But among the shards, I found a new faith. Or perhaps it found me. It didn’t depend on me, my abilities, my machinations, my manipulations, my striving for a it-was-well-with-my-soul-no-matter-what-happened attitude, or my felt need to defend God’s faithfulness based on the stability and perfection of my life.
Just the opposite, in fact.
As my marriage reached its end my faith grew instead of faltered. Once I let go and stopped grasping, clinging, and demanding (of self, husband, and God), I found a faith that sustained, carried, and encouraged. Again, somewhat counter-intuitive: in letting go, I was able to hold on. Or better said, faith held on to me.
I’m deeply grateful.
I’m deeply grateful for the past five days with my sister – for laughter, for memories, for a relationship that has weathered all others. I’m deeply grateful for a family that taught me much about a faith grounded in a faithful God – a framework I’ve been able to rest on and in even as I’ve pushed, probed, and pondered. I’m deeply grateful for a seminary education that invited exposure to ideas and theologies that stretched and shaped. And I’m deeply grateful (most of the time) for life that comes crashing in, invites (and sometimes forces) me to let go, and then says, “rest.”
Inhaling deep. Pneuma. Spirit. Sacred. This thing called “faith.”
Did I mention that I’m deeply grateful?