I have been a Christian for many decades now, but all of you probably know that it has not been an easy path for me. I have struggled with my own questions, as well as the questions of people I love. Actually, using the term “I have” is probably incorrect. It’s more like “I do” struggle. I’m not a social Christian, one who goes to church for social reasons, to meet friends or get involved in service programs (although I think both of those are wonderful things!). I go to church to worship God. I go to church because there I hear at least some of what God has to say to me. But church attendance itself has never been what it’s about either, and for that reason I actually read the Bible, pretty much on a daily basis. And I pray. I talk to God and do my best to let God talk to me.
It would be easy to get dressed up and go to church on Sunday, and listen to a charming, charismatic preacher give sermons about love and self esteem, but that is not what my spirit seeks. I want to follow the narrow path, even though it sometimes leads through the brambles, sometimes across oceans, or through storms, and sometimes even just drops off a cliff to unknown places! There are a lot of Christian books out there that can help in negotiating this path. But I have another problem. I wander sometimes. And because of that, I really, really enjoy a good, thoughtful book written by another wanderer who found her way back.
Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey is such a book, and it has the benefit of being one of the most beautifully written books of its kind, one that makes you stop occasionally just to savor the words, which has phrases that stick with even someone with a really terrible memory, like me. But don’t take my word for it. Let me treat you to a quote that kind of sums up the whole book:
But most of us, at some point, will encounter the second state, which he called “critical distance.” This is the time in our formation when we begin to … well, doubt. We begin to question. We hold our faith up to the light and see only the holes and inconsistencies….
Yet he writes, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.” I remember crying out to God once while in the midst of what I called my wilderness, what Ricoeur calls the critical distance, because I was longing to “go back.” …. I found it was not enough to live without the magic and the beauty, without the wonder. I couldn’t return to my first naivete and I missed the simplicity of it. I wanted to be called again, to hear the voice of God again, perhaps never more wildly than when it felt like the God I once knew was disappearing like steam on a mirror.
But those who continue to press forward can find what Ricoeur called a second naivete. I didn’t know it, but I was pressing through my wilderness to deliverance, toward that place on the other side of rationality, when we reengage with our faith with new eyes. We take responsibility for what we believe and do. We understand our texts or ideas or practices differently, yes, but also with a sweetness because we are there by choice. As Richard Rohr writes, “the same passion which leads us away from God can also lead us back to God and to our true selves.”
Bessey’s journey is not my journey, but she captures the essence, the heart that I feel beating in my own chest. This is what I have said, why I am a Christian in spite of my questions, because of the spirit, because of the call, because of the heavenly magic of belonging to God.
Jesus. His name felt like every question and every answer. There was a strain of something like unearthly music to His name, and part of me still believes that my desire to be like Jesus was the Spirit’s call — deep calling unto deep, as the psalmist wrote.
My broken heart — cynical, jaded, frustrated, angry, wounded — somehow exhaled at every mention of His name.
In my wanderings and wonderings I have changed. I judge people’s lives and faith less. Instead I trust God. I trust him to know the hearts of people, which I can’t know. I trust him to be able to call to those hearts. I trust him to speak to people and tell them what he wants them to do. There have been times when people didn’t seem to trust that I had heard from God, because what God was telling me was different from what they judged to be right, but time and life proved that what I’d heard was true, for me, in that time and place. Exactly what Sarah does, exactly what she believes … I have to tell you, I can’t even remember those things. There is plenty of the mind present in this book, but what captured me was its heart.
And then I open my Bible, just like my father did every morning of his life. I know that this very morning, he was also in what he still calls “the Word.” And I am my father’s daughter. I am in the Word, just not quite in the same way anymore. I spend these moments reading Isaiah and I pray. I write and refill my cup, I bow my head over these sacred words that I love all the better for the wrestling to release them from the prison I built for them.
I begin to read, jotting down verses as the Spirit illuminates them to me…. Sometimes I write the names of my four tinies and then I write down a few words from Scripture that correspond with what I am praying over them….
So here I am, my father’s daughter, as the light breaks through the forest, writing down the names of my children and my husband, my friends and even the world at large — like our brothers and sisters in Iraq or Haiti or Burundi — and beside these scrawled names, I am writing the words of Scripture. Not like promises or talismans, not like magic spells, no. But to give language to what I yearn for, what I believe, and even what I hope.
If your faith is strong and firm and neatly defined, then perhaps Bessey’s book isn’t for you. But one of my pastors once swept his hand around the church in which we were standing. He said, “Do you see all these people? All those people whose faith you admire most have asked these same questions that you ask.” That was a revelation to me, but it makes sense. If he is right, then this book would be right for every person whose heart longs for faith. You probably won’t walk Bessey’s paths. You may well not reach the same conclusions she did. But I think you will feel the love of the Lord and the moving of the Spirit.
How many stars are there in the rating system here? I don’t know, but I award them all.
Sarah Bessey has a blog, by the way. You can find it at http://sarahbessey.com/. Her description of herself kind of says it all: “Happy, clappy Jesus follower. Recovering know-it-all.” Sounds like someone I’d like to know!
November 21, 2015