Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
The theme of this Convention, indeed, for all of 2023, is Taking the Next Faithful Step. It is an image that evokes the physical act of moving toward a destination. But as those who cannot physically walk know very well, not every faithful step is made with our feet. We take faithful steps with our hearts and minds, in our relationships and commitments. Sometimes taking the next faithful step doesn’t involve movement at all. Other times, it necessitates looking back before moving forward, or turning around and going in a different direction.
Taking the next faithful steps involves taking stock of where we are. Thus the step you take for yourself, and for the community or ministry that you represent here will be specific and unique to you. To be sure, we have challenges and opportunities in common, and a singular call, as Christians, to know, love, and follow Christ, but how that call is lived out, and what step you are being summoned to take now is rooted in your particular role and context.
For example, in the fantastic story that we’ve just heard of Jesus inviting Peter to get out of the boat and walk on water, it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t call all the disciples to join him there. As I heard one preacher counsel the members of his congregation, “If Jesus isn’t calling you out on the water, best stay in the boat.”
The image of Peter walking on water is symbolic of those times when what’s before us isn’t merely a step, but rather a leap of faith–those marking moments when we know that we’re being asked, either by life or by Jesus himself, to do something that we’ve never done before and that seems impossible, or, at the very least, really hard. As we step out onto that proverbial water, we know that we are beyond our capacities and the ability to control outcomes. It shouldn’t surprise us when we sink a time or two.
Looking back on your life, and certainly in the past few years, I suspect that you’ve all had at least one walking-on-water experience, and perhaps more. And that more than once, you’ve been in the position of the other disciples, watching from your place of relative safety as your loved ones were being called to step out on water of their own. As much as you may have wanted to, you couldn’t go there with them.
Bring one of those moments to mind now, if you can. Acknowledge the courage taking such a faithful step required of you, or what it felt like to watch while another ventured out. What, as a result of your experience, have you learned about yourself, and how God moves in your life?
There is another less dramatic but no less courageous way that we can experience the call to take the next faithful step. I’m speaking of those times when Jesus isn’t standing in front of us with his arms stretched out; when perhaps we’ve started on a path that seemed compelling at the onset, but is not clear now, and we wonder if we’ve made a mistake; when we’ve encountered obstacles that have so consumed our energies that we feel stuck, or off course.
These are the times when long-range vision goes dark. As the author E. L. Doctorow once described the process of writing, “It’s like driving a car at night.” His advice to other writers was to keep going. ““You only see what the headlights light up, but you can make the whole trip that way.”1
One biblical story that speaks to taking the next faithful step in the dark is that of Moses and the people of Israel moving through the wilderness toward a land of promise. The beginning of the journey could not have been more dramatic and the call more clear. God freed them from slavery, parting the waters of the Red Sea so that they could escape their captors, and God set them on a journey in the wilderness toward a new life of promise.
But the journey took a lot longer than anticipated. It wasn’t an easy road, and the way forward wasn’t clear. More than once, the people seriously contemplated turning back. And not everyone made it through the wilderness. Some interpretations of that iconic story suggest that the pilgrimage generation’s task was to start the journey but not arrive at the destination–which is heartbreaking to think about, but for those of us in the latter years of our lives, that vocation becomes far more real.
I’d like to dwell here for a moment, because those of us who are sixty or older make up the majority of this gathering, and in many of our congregations we are the most influential, because frankly, we show up more and we’re paying the bills. But when the way forward is unclear, our natural temptation is to look back and to hold onto what has the most meaning for us. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that the focus is on us and our preferences, which can blind us to what others need now, particularly those we hope will join our communities. And then we wonder why they don’t come, or don’t stay.
For us, the next faithful step is to acknowledge the grief we carry, the feeling that we’re letting our ancestors down, and the worry that what we value most is being lost or discarded, and that we will be discarded. It’s a real fear, and I hear it across the diocese. In truth, sometimes I feel it myself.
Almost every time I talk about our diocesan priority, as expressed in our strategic plan, to invest resources in rising generations, so that we might become a church that our children and grandchildren will find spiritually compelling, someone will give voice to what all of us over sixty are feeling–”Don’t forget about us old people.” Or, “we don’t want to lose our church’s identity,” which is another way of saying, “We don’t want to lose our identity.” The work of creating the kind of churches that our children and grandchildren will want to attend depends upon us old people giving of ourselves and our resources in ways that preserve the best of our traditions, but allows those coming after us to tell us what they need, what speaks to their hearts and inspires their souls.
It’s not as if everything one generation values is of no use to those that come after. My musician son, now in his thirties, prefers to listen to vinyl records even as he produces music with the latest high tech equipment. He just traded his guitar, that was maybe five years old, for one built in 1940, which he played at his grandfather’s funeral two weeks ago amplified by technology that didn’t exist when that guitar was made.
Contemplative prayer practices dating back to monks from the 4th century continue to nourish the modern soul, as reflected in the number of apps you can download on your smartphone to help you engage them. Old hymns find new settings and can find their place among other musical expressions. Cathedrals like this one, and the beauty of all our church buildings crafted by earlier generations, still beckon, but not if they look as if no one has updated their interiors, replaced the carpeting, or even cleaned the closets since the 1970s.
Let me return now to the image of taking the next faithful step when we can’t see very far ahead, because from a spiritual perspective, that’s where we live most of our lives. The moments of high drama are relatively rare compared to the long stretches of making our way in the relative dark of not knowing. That’s especially true after an experience of trauma, or when we’re tired, feeling a bit stuck, or facing realities that seem to be insurmountable. That’s when taking one small, faithful step, followed by another, can make all the difference, even when it feels we’re not making any progress at all. As I’ve been speaking, I wonder if an example of this kind of faithful step taking has come to mind for you–either for yourself or your community.
The renowned depth psychologist Carl Jung, who was deeply attuned to the spiritual dimensions of life, kept up a lively correspondence with people all over the world. People would write to him for all manner of advice. Two letters, and his responses, speak to this idea of the next faithful step.
The first letter was written by a woman who wanted to know, broadly speaking, how best to live her life. Jung responded, in part, with these words:
Your questions are unanswerable because you want to know how one ought to live. . .There is no single, definite way . . . The way you make for yourself, which you do not know in advance, simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other . . . if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.2
What is the next and most necessary thing for you right now, and for the community you represent? It’s a compelling question for all of us, and sometimes can help us keep going when our long-range vision is out of focus.
Another man wrote to Jung who had clearly done things that he now regretted and was desperate for guidance in how to make amends. To him, Jung replied:
Nobody can set right a mismanaged life with a few words. But there is no pit you cannot climb out of provided you make the right effort at the right place. When one is in a mess like you are, one has no right any more to worry about the idiocy of one’s own psychology, but must do the next thing with diligence and devotion and earn the goodwill of others. In every littlest thing you do in this way you will find yourself. [Everyone has] to do it the hard way, and always with the next, the littlest, and the hardest things.3
I find Jung’s counsel incredibly helpful when I’ve made a mess of things, which I have done in my episcopacy, or when I realize that my intentions to do good were experienced as harmful to someone else. It doesn’t help to justify my actions or make excuses. I simply must do what I can to make amends and restitution, one step at a time. Those who walk the path of recovery and the Twelve Steps know this well.
That’s the approach I am taking, as your bishop, as we face our historical and contemporary complicity in systemic racism. It’s a long journey of reparation–making amends for harms done one faithful step at a time. Some of you may be learning of these steps for the first time, and your congregation hasn’t yet engaged the issues that reparations raises for us. All I can say to you is that these issues are real, they run deep, and those of who are the beneficiaries of white supremacy in our society can only feign ignorance or innocence for so long.
In this and in all aspects of your community’s life, and for us as a diocese, Jesus will sometimes call us to bold steps out onto the proverbial water. But on most days, and in most things, the next faithful step for us is more humble, because we’re in the valley, not on the mountain, and we’re walking more by faith than by sight. Of course we get tired. We’d be made of stone not to feel discouraged. Grief is real. But here’s the paradox of faith, once we accept grief and the struggles of life, our capacity to experience joy increases, too. As Jesus told us, the way of the cross is the way of life.
The planners of this Convention have worked hard to highlight signs of hope and goodness throughout the diocese for us to savor and to celebrate, and to encourage each other as we make our way. We will remind you of the resources available to you as you take the next faithful steps in your context, and of some of the faithful steps before us as a diocese–many of which are of the humble, next-most-necessary-thing variety, and a few are more like walking on water.
May we be open to the Spirit of God moving among us, giving us the consolation, strength, and courage to take our next faithful steps, and to trust that the One who has begun a good work in us will see it through to completion. Amen.
2Quoted by Maria Papova in The Marginalian, a weekly composite of quotes and reflections
3Quoted again in The Marginalian
I often wonder if I truly hear God’s voice when I ask for His guidance or if it’s my own imagination telling me which way to go. I pray that God will help me to hear His voice and to understand His word but I’m afraid that I get distracted and sometimes I’m overwhelmed and may not hear Him. How do I know that I’m going in the direction God is showing me?
For three months, I have carried in my heart questions of faith that people across the Diocese of Washington have sent me. It has been a great blessing. I’ve come to realize that the best response to life’s deepest questions isn’t necessarily an answer, but the cultivation of a spiritual practice that opens us to the presence of God.
This week’s question is particularly appropriate for the Christian season of Epiphany–a word that means “revelation.” An epiphany is anything that comes to us from the outside that resonates deeply on the inside. There is a part of us that is always listening for that external/internal connection, what the theologian Howard Thurman called “the sound of the genuine.”
Thurman told the 1980 graduating class of Spelman College:
There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself, and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. . . . if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will, all of your life, spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.1
Every year in Epiphany, we read in church the biblical accounts of how Jesus called his first disciples to follow him. In one version, at the sound of Jesus’ voice, four young fishermen immediately knew that they needed to drop everything and follow Jesus. It reminds me of the moment in West Side Story when Tony and Maria first see each other across the crowded high school gymnasium.
We’d all love to have that kind of epiphany, and sometimes we do. But those moments are rare, and even when we experience them, we still have to consider what they mean. Thus, there is no escaping our need to cultivate some kind of inner spiritual practice, one that helps us both to listen and to ponder, that is, to sort things through.
One might call this spiritual practice “prayer,” but it is prayer with a specific purpose. It is discerning prayer, the process we go through to help us hear what God might have to say to us on the inside as we’re deciding how to respond to what coming to us from the outside.
So how do we go about this process of listening and pondering?
We can do many things. For some, the process is a daily practice of sitting quietly and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, to ponder requires movement–going for a walk or a run. Also helpful is talking through with someone who has your best interests at heart. But in the end, this is a solitary process, as we claim for ourselves the path we will take.
One time-tested practice of pondering is beautifully described in a small book entitled, Sleeping With Bread 2. The book’s title comes from a story told about children left orphaned and starving during the Second World War. When at last they were given food, they couldn’t trust that there would be more later on, so they ate themselves sick at every meal. Their caregivers’ solution was to give them a loaf of bread at bedtime, so they could sleep with confidence that there would be food in the morning.
Inspired by the image of children holding their loaves of bread, the authors describe a simple practice of holding onto what gives us life, especially in times of uncertainty and transition.
The practice is this: at the end of each day, take a few moments to reflect, asking yourself two questions: For which moment today am I most grateful? And, for which am I least grateful? Or, when did I feel the most alive today? When was I drained of life? It helps to write our reflections down, just a few sentences each day, so as to discover patterns as they reveal themselves over time.
This practice, known as the examen, heightens our awareness of those moments we might have otherwise missed through which God is speaking to us. The assumption here is that God’s desire for us is greater life, not less. Should we discern that a costly, difficult road is ours to take, we do so equipped with a greater reservoir of what sustains us in lean times.
And if, by grace, we have an experience of seemingly instantaneous clarity, we’ll realize that God, in reality, has been preparing us for it for some time. We’ll be ready, as those first disciples were, to say yes.
1Howard Thurman, Commencement Address at Spelman College, May 4, 1980.
2Dennis, Sheila and Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1995).
I believe. Help my unbelief.
Heartfelt thanks to those who have written to me with your Questions of Faith. Your honesty and vulnerability has moved me deeply. As one person said at the church I visited last Sunday, these are the questions that lurk beneath the surface of our lives that we don’t know how to acknowledge and, as people of faith, are often embarrassed to ask. Yet these are the questions, in the words of the poet David Whyte, “that have no right to go away.”
The first two people to respond asked about the very existence and the nature of God.
Are there days when you wake up in the morning with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?”
How can we truly know that God is good?
Yes is the answer to the first question. Thankfully, I have learned that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to a life of faith. Doubts and questions are faith’s fertile soil. Like anyone, I’ve had my share of both, in large part because of all that I see in this world, that we all see, that cannot be easily reconciled with the notion of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
From the great spiritual traditions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, there are, in fact, “answers” to the hardest questions human beings have asked for milenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found those answers particularly compelling or satisfying. I’m more drawn to the questions themselves and those who across the ages have had the courage to ask, and to live in the ambiguity of unknowing.
For example, there’s a book in the Bible, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man named Job. Job, as the story begins, is the embodiment of faithfulness and righteous living. But then catastrophe strikes on every front: his children die, his possessions are taken from him, he is afflicted with all manner of disease. All this happens at Satan’s hand, with God’s consent, as a kind of cosmic test of his faith. It’s a terrible set up for Job, and if you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems that many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything, Job never loses faith in God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. Job lashes out in grief and anger at God. He rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these terrible things have happened to him, which amount to all the best religious answers given to explain the reasons human beings must suffer and sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that after Job exhausts himself and falls silent, he has an experience of God speaking to him at last. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to trust in God, accept grief as a given in this life, release his anger, and keep living.
Such moments, when they come, are what keep me going, too. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of God’s goodness is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, or equally compelling, when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.2
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love, or a longing for it. Often it’s the memory of a sacred encounter, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith that keeps us going when our faith wanes. As a young adult, when my heart was deeply broken, a wise person in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.” I held onto her words as a lifeline through that dark time.
I wonder who has been a lifeline for you in such times, and I suspect you have been that faith-carrying presence for others when they have felt most alone. We matter to one another more than we realize. So let me emphasize again the importance of your questions, and to encourage you not only to honor them for yourself but to share them with one another. Please continue to share them with me, if you like. Offer them to God as well–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens.
1“Sometimes,” by David Whyte, in River Flow: New and Selected Poems, 1984-2007 (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 2007), 53.
2I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately. “Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Luke 21: 5-19
I recently spent a few hours on a Sunday afternoon with 8 young adults–men and women in their late 20s and early 30s–from a congregation in Washington, DC. They wanted to talk with me about spiritual practices, and in particular, what our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, has commended to all of us in the Episcopal Church: The Way of Love: 7 Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life.
We spent most of our time discussing the first of those practices, to turn, which, as a flower turns toward the sun, is the daily invitation given to us to turn our focus toward Jesus and his teachings, to consciously open ourselves to him and allow him to guide us through life. Turning also has the connotation of turning around, or turning from those things that are not loving toward ourselves and others, and thus not of God. The word itself acknowledges the fact that all of us fall short, make mistakes, do things that we regret, and participate in evil in ways that we may not be aware of or believe are wrong. Each day brings a new opportunity to turn away from those things that make us lesser versions of ourselves, hold our lives before the life and love of Jesus, and turn toward him, trusting that he is always turning toward us.
I told the group that one of the ways I try to remember to turn toward Jesus each day is to quietly offer myself before him when I rise in the morning, and to think of him before I check my phone. I remember most days, and when I don’t, I stop whenever I realize that I’ve forgotten, and turn my gaze and my thoughts toward him. Likewise when I’m driving, before turning on the radio, I take a breath and turn my thoughts toward him. Obviously, these aren’t huge gestures, but I pray that the daily practice of them helps prepare me for those other times when Jesus may invite me to turn in a bigger way, or–as the gospel texts soberly reminds us–when life itself turns and I’m faced with real suffering and hardship, so that I have more inside me to draw upon, and that I’ve become practiced in turning towards him for those times when I really need his strength to persevere and endure.
As our session was drawing to a close, I asked the group if they had any questions for me. Normally when I open things up for questions with a group, people want to know about things we’re doing in the diocese or for assistance with something they are struggling with in the church. This time was different. The first person to raise her hand asked me how I knew that God truly loved me. The look in her eyes suggested that she wasn’t so much asking about me, but for herself, how I might help her believe that God loved her. The second person to ask a question wanted to know how I had forgiven someone who had hurt me deeply; again, I felt as if the one asking needed guidance on how he might forgive.
Such deep and important questions. I did my best to answer honestly, first by acknowledging that even for someone ordained in the church, knowing for certain that God loves us isn’t just an intellectual matter, but one of the heart and experience. There are days, I told the group, when I struggle as much as anyone with a sense of distance or unknowing–certainly feelings of unworthiness–in relation to the love of God.
If those were my only experiences, it would be impossible to believe that God loves me, or anyone else. But they aren’t. I have had other, deeply personal, transformative moments when I’ve experienced what I can only describe as love. While they are fleeting, they help keep me going, and allow me to hold onto what I choose to believe–that is, what I choose to trust– even when I don’t feel it. Sometimes the choice to believe in God, and in God’s love, is all I have.
Regarding forgiveness, I began by stating the obvious: that forgiveness of the deeper wounds is hard and that it takes time. In order to forgive, we need to have sufficient capacity inside ourselves; we need to be able to define ourselves as something more than the wound we have suffered. The deeper the wound, the longer the healing process takes. Forgiveness also requires a certain amount of distance from the wounding person or situation, so that we are no longer in danger of being wounded again, or in truly dire situations, when we know that God has a hold on us, even as we are in the midst of pain. Forgiveness is an expression of love–first, for ourselves, as we hold ourselves tenderly in that wounded place, and, when we are able, love for the one who has hurt us. Forgiveness, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “is the attribute of the strong.” Think of Jesus on the cross, forgiving those who put him there. In his suffering, he was the stronger one. We can’t fake that kind of love and capacity to forgive. Often I fail at forgiveness. When it comes to me, I recognize it as the gift that it is.
Inspired by the questions these young adults asked, I asked in my most recent bi-weekly message to the diocese, if others had questions of faith they would like to ask me. I’ve been deeply moved by what has come back to me.
Before I delve into some of those questions, I invite you to consider your own. You received, along with your bulletin, a half-sheet of paper on which I invite you now or sometime this morning to write your question, or questions, about faith. If you’re willing, we can talk about them in our time together after worship, or I can take them home and respond another way. I can’t promise satisfactory answers to your questions–I don’t have answers for many of my own–but I promise to ponder them, in a spirit of mutual wondering. Questions are fertile ground for faith.
In the questions that have come to me thus far, the range of topics is broad. Some have centered on the Bible–how to read and understand it, what authority it has over us. One person asked if we begin to question literal truth in some places (as opposed to its literary, symbolic, and moral truth), where do we stop?
Others questions have been more personal: “How can I know God’s will for my life?” and “Would you like to know the exact day you will die?”
Several questions were about the very existence of God, and the nature of God, which is where I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning. “Are there days when you wake up in the morning,” one person asked, with the thought “All this stuff about God can’t possibly be real. Have I been deluding myself all these years?” Another asked, “How can we truly know that God is good?” Still another asked, “Does God intervene? How do we pray for God’s protection over our drive from our home to our work while children are starving? Yet we ask God to watch over us. Is He watching over them? Or are we watched over at all?”
In answer to the first question–if I ever question the existence of God–the answer is yes. For me, doubt is not the opposite of faith, but essential to my life of faith. I’ve had my share of doubts and struggles, in part because of all that I see in this world, as do you, I cannot reconcile with the reality of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God.
Among Christians, in the Bible, and from the traditions we’ve inherited from our spiritual ancestors, there are “answers” to the hardest questions that human beings have asked for millenia, but to be honest, I’ve never found the answers I’ve heard or read compelling or satisfying.
There’s a book in the Bible, the Book of Job, written centuries before the birth of Jesus, which tells the story of a man from whom everything of meaning and importance to him had been taken–deliberately so, it seems, by Satan and with God’s consent, in order to test his faith. If you only read the first and last chapters of the book (which it seems many do) you’re left with the impression that despite everything that happened to him, including the death of his children, losing all his property and immense physical suffering, Job never lost faith in God and of God’s goodness. But the middle 37 chapters tell another story entirely. In them, Job pours out his grief and outrage, and he rejects every explanation that his well-meaning friends offer to explain why these things had happened to him, which sound a lot like the platitudes we can fall back on in such times–such as, there must be a reason for this; surely your sins have brought this upon you; just trust in God’s plan.
What turns things around for Job isn’t any of the answers given him. No, what happens is that Job has an experience of God speaking to him at last. The long stretch of God’s silence is at last broken. To my reading, it’s not that great of an experience, actually. God isn’t particularly consoling to Job, and God explains nothing, as if the mystery of human suffering must simply be accepted. But for Job, the experience of God coming to him was enough. It didn’t take away his suffering, or answer his questions. But it was enough for him to believe in God and keep living.
Such moments when they come (and they come on their own timetable) are what keep me going. Yes, I study the Scriptures. I show up in church, I say my daily prayers, and do my imperfect best to follow in the way of Jesus. But my faith in the reality of God, and of a God that is good, is sustained in moments of encounter, either in my own heart, and equally compelling when I see the impact of a God-shaped, Jesus-centered life in another person.
I’m reminded of a song which put to a melody a haunting poem that is said to have been discovered on the wall of a World War II concentration camp:
I believe in the sun.
I believe in the sun, even when,
even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love.
I believe in love even when,
even when I don’t feel it.
I believe in God.
I believe in God even when,
even when God is silent.1
Such belief would be impossible without some previous sense of God’s presence and love. Often it’s the memory of God, the desire for a connection with God, or someone’s faith in God that keeps us going when our faith wanes. Once, when my heart was deeply broken as a young person, a wise spiritual mentor in my life said to me, “God is still with you, even though it doesn’t seem so now.”
The question, “Does God intervene when we pray for specific things?” goes to the heart of prayer. How can we give thanks to God for sparing us from suffering when others are not spared? What are we actually praying for when we ask God to open doors for us or those we love, heal our infirmities, make wars to cease–not to mention helping us navigate through the smaller yet real complexities of our lives?
What I believe is this: God does intervene through us; God moves through the lives of human beings, and that as we draw closer to God and strive to follow the example of Jesus, we have greater capacity to be agents of positive change in places where God’s love is needed. I’m not rejecting the possibility of other forms of divine intervention, because there is so much about God that I don’t understand. And I pray for all manner of things that I need help with, that I long for God to do or to make possible. I bring all my desires before God, because that’s what our faith encourages us to do. In the end, however, I recognize that in prayer–even in the prayers that are of raw desire or desperate help–what changes most through my prayers is me.
When we pray for others who are suffering, we put ourselves in God’s hands to move toward some form of response, and in some way we take on the suffering of others as our own, which we see in Jesus on the cross.
“Christ has no physical body here on earth but ours,” Teresa of Avila reminds us, “No hands and feet but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he sees, ours are the feet on which he moves; ours are the lips with which he speaks to this world with kindness.”
In closing, let me simply emphasize the importance of your questions, and to encourage you to hold them in your heart and share them with one another. Offer them to God–even to the God you’re not always sure that you believe in–and wait to see what happens. Strive to be a community that honors the deeper questions in life and create space wherever you can to explore them together.
One of my gifts to you, that I’ll leave with members of the vestry, is a collection of faith sharing cards, that are simply questions to prompt meaningful conversations among you and a way to go deeper on the path of faith. As we go deeper, what matters isn’t so much the actual answers that come to us, but the relationship itself–with God, through the presence of Jesus and in the power of God’s mysterious spirit that lives and moves through us all.
1I Believe by Mark Miller | Virtual Choir
Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
As with the air we breathe and the ground beneath our feet, we sometimes take for granted the faith communities that we count on to be there for us when we need them. So in this season when the leaders of your local church ask you to consider your financial pledge to support its ministry, l invite you to consider the many ways you are blessed by your church, even if you haven’t been inside its doors for a long time.
Let’s begin with your clergy, who are quick to respond when you call, reach out when you’re hurting, are always glad to see you, and work every day to create sacred spaces in which you can draw closer to God. They do all these things because they care. Who else in your life spends hours each week preparing to speak about the most important things–such as faith, doubt, suffering, joy, courage, forgiveness, grief, and love–and encourages you to orient your life toward Jesus.
Now consider the community itself–the people who show up early to prepare a place for you, who practice the songs, tend to the altar, and clean up after you’ve gone home. Think of those who inspire you by their selflessness and who provide all manner of opportunities for you to help make this world a better place; those who are the first to knock at your door with a casserole or flowers when you’ve lost someone; who ask how you are doing, and genuinely want to know. Let’s not forget the person who drives you crazy, and yet who helps you practice patience and acceptance–the very patience and acceptance that you need, too.
If you are raising children, consider the priceless gift of doing so with other families who, like you, want their children to have, as we pray the Baptism liturgy, “inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the give of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” In church, your children are surrounded by surrogate grandparents, aunties and uncles, and really cool teenagers for your kids to look up to, until, low and behold, they are cool teenagers teaching a rising generation how to hold the candles and cross.
While caring for the building itself is a big responsibility and costs a lot of money, think of what it means to have such a place, a home away from home where people like you have gone to pray for generations. The walls of your church are soaked with prayer. If they could talk, they would tell of tears and laughter, moments of unspeakable sorrow and wondrous joy; of forgiveness sought and received; of the word spoken that changed a person’s life, of an injustice done and then, by grace, acknowledged, and restitution made–all in that sacred space.
Finally, consider all those who have never been and perhaps will never be part of your church but who nonetheless receive blessing through its ministry–those whose sobriety depends on the A.A. meeting in the basement, or who are experiencing homelessness and your church is the one place they are treated with dignity; the children who are nurtured in the daycare or receive the backpacks your church donates at the beginning of the school year; the refugee family given a home and support in a new land.
Now it may be that your church doesn’t do all of the things I’ve mentioned, or that it’s struggling to regain its footing, or is in a leadership transition. No church is perfect, and if you’re looking for reasons to be disappointed, you will probably find them. But don’t forget the ways you have experienced God through the ministry of your church, despite or perhaps through its imperfections. Think of the times you’ve felt Jesus’ mercy when you needed it, the joy of singing a favorite hymn alongside others, and the gift of belonging to a community of faith, not so much because you get everything you want there, but rather because you know that it’s your spiritual home. Your presence and your gifts make a difference, including the gifts you didn’t realize that you had. You may have a big part to play in your church’s future, and maybe what’s coming next is something you don’t want to miss.
Finances are challenging for many of these days, and that’s true for your local church, too. If this is a hard time for you, know that your church understands if you need to reduce your pledge. But if you are blessed with a financial cushion to weather rising inflation and the fluctuations of the stock market, consider being more generous in the coming year. Let your clergy know that you’re grateful for them. Help your volunteer lay leaders rest easier as they work on ministry goals and budgets. Do your part. You’ll be glad you did. And others will be blessed in ways you may never know.