21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
I once asked a friend whose existence exudes God’s mercy if he ever doubted—if he just once thought, even for a second, “this is just crazy.” He looked me in the eye, shrugged his shoulders and stunned me with the words, “never.” I believe him. His life attests to his confidence that it is God who guides our steps and who raises us to the fullness of life, to the highest and sweetest note. His life, while not always easy, exudes joy and love, and the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” [Heb 12:11].
Unlike my friend, many people struggle with faith. More foundational than the myriad issues with institutional religion, the idea of a God, a greater power, a single, intelligent, ineffable, infinite and benevolent being who desires to be in relationship with the world is hard to grasp. And for Christians, the belief that God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, to gather the nations as a shepherd gathers his flock, just simply defies logic.
Doubters claim they don’t have faith. Christians are told that faith is a gift of the Spirit [1 Cor 12:9, Hebrews 11:1-40]; some receive it, and others do not. It doesn’t seem fair, does it? We bandy around the language of “the gift of faith” and “giftedness” if was like mathematical skill or Olympic athleticism or artistry. No doubt, those are gifts and abilities some are born with. Likewise, some people just seem to have faith. Were they born with it?
And what about suffering? The question regularly wends its way through the forest of doubt. What kind of benevolent creator allows what it has created to destroy itself? Volumes have been written on the topic of Theodicy, which is the “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence given the existence of evil,” but that is a subject for another day.
Is my faith rock steady? Mostly, but its makeup is more characteristic of the sedimentary variety of rock than igneous; it is sandstone, not granite. My faith is an aggregate of minerals and sediments, fossils and particulates layered and compacted by gravity and the movement of my lifetime. I think I’m in good company because if trust, belief, and reliance in the intangible were anything other than this we’d have one slim book in the Bible and there’d be a lot of tremendously bored theologians.
There are times when I find myself drifting from my faith, times when I might even say “this is just crazy” before my life experience tells me, “no, it is not.” These times of doubt come when I grow distant from my prayer life—times when I slide into the dualistic mind that is the core of much of Richard Rohr’s writing.
Many years ago, when I participated in a three-year diocesan ecclesial ministry program one of my classmates told me she prayed continuously throughout the day, and in fact was in the midst of prayer at that very moment. Her focus, she said, was like a gravel path leading to “the narrow gate.” I was incredulous. How did this gainfully employed mother of three get anything done if she was praying all the time? And what did she mean by gravel? In the dozen or so years since then, I have sought, with limited success, the kind of prayer-filled mindfulness of which my friend spoke. Like anything else, it’s a practice, and I am easily distracted, my path is now strewn with gravel.
It’s like when I began my Master’s degree. I wanted to study theology to deepen my understanding of the God of history and the God of today and to make sense of what God means to me in my life in my family and in my faith community, and the world. But there were times when the study became the ends not the means. My striving to master the material did not always lead me to pray, “Am I doing your will?” or “Are WE doing your will?”
At different times in my studies, I become cynical and discouraged, not about the existence of God, but about how inconsistently we interpret our experience of God, and how poorly we follow God’s will. All the scriptures (read Isaiah from the start to finish, with a good commentary, of course, and see the similarities to our contemporary global crisis), and all the church history (change in the church is like trying to use plastic spoons to push an aircraft carrier out to sea), and all the theology—it seems like the more we study it the less we agree. Sometimes it seems that we take three steps forward and four steps back.
We often take a sledgehammer to faith. It is hard to “endure our trials” [Hebrews 12:7]. “This is just crazy” becomes “This is just stupid.” People think they know more, believe they have the power and think their strength comes from their own abilities.
One of the most inspiring highlights of the 2016 Olympic Games was the example given by so many Christian athletes who openly shared that it was their faith in God that helped them prevail. Footage of athletes praying before and after events, on their own or in groups, proliferated. Through these visual and verbal expressions of prayer, each athlete was like a sign of God’s glory being proclaimed among the nations.
These athletes know better than most what it takes to reach a goal; they know that success is not easy, even for the strong and the gifted, but their faith is the evidence of their striving. Believers and doubters alike can learn a lot about faith and striving from their example.
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” [Luke 13:24].