Faith and Will Weathering the Storms in Our Spiritual Lives
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- Edition: 1st
- Format: Paperback
- Copyright: 05/27/2010
- Publisher: Tarcher
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An Excerpt fromFaith and Will>
I would like to begin at the beginning, but I do not know what the beginning is anymore. I am a person at midlife. I am a believer who is trying one more time to believe. That is to say I am caught off guard by life and by feelings of emptiness.
I want there to be more reassurance than I currently feel that we are on the right path. By "we I mean God and me. I have been trying consciously to work with God for twenty-five years now, and a great deal has been made of my life that
I think has a lot of value— but I am one more time asking for something to be made of me and it that I myself can hold on to. Me. Personally. Not as some abstract but as a genuine comfort.
I am a writer and a teacher— "worthy" things, but I am not feeling my worth in them right now. I must again come to some relationship to God that will enable me to pursue my career as an outward manifestation of inwardly held values.
In other words, what needs mending here is probably not the outward form— I suspect that after a great deal of soul-searching I would still come back to being a writer and a teacher—but the inward connection. I must feel I am doing what God would have me do.
To be comforted, I must feel connected to God and that I am acting out of some inner sense of guidance. Guidance is what is missing right now. I feel that I have come so far and suddenly,pfft, God is missing. I know that the phrase for the period I am in is "dark night of the soul," but that seems very dramatic for what is essentially a broad daylight problem. It is three o'clock on a dreary, gray early autumn day and I do not know where God is.
It seems to me it takes faith to say "God is right here. Right now. Right where we are." To do that is to assume that no mistakes have been made. But maybe no mistakes have been made or, if mistakes have been made, they must be able to be unmade. God, merciful God, must be able to incline Himself to the exact point, here, where we are crying in the wilderness.
And so' because there is no point in positing God as misplaced, let us assume God is right where God is supposed to be, right where we are. Here. Now. In the midst. If God is right here, then what is my problem?
My problem then comes back to faith. God is here, but I do not believe God is here. I do not believe, but that does not mean I am right. I may very well be blind to God right now. God may be everywhere, all around me, completely involved and infusing all of my affairs and I still might just miss His presence if what is going on is somehow counter to my sense of God or godliness. If I cannot see how and why God is using me as he does, then I stubbornly find myself thinking that there must again be some mistake and I must have lost God somehow. I turned left and God turned right. I went north while God went south.
Ah, but I have not.
God is our milieu, every compass point, our entire universe. God cannot be misplaced. Then it follows that everything is in divine order and that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, feeling exactly what it is I am supposed to be feeling— which is lost. Why, God, must I feel lost?
There must be some purpose to my feeling lost. If it is God's will for me to be wandering without a compass, there must be some point to such meanderings. God, where are you? I ask, and in the question there must be some worth because God's will is not purposeless. God has intentions for us and the one intention that I can see in my current dilemma is that God must wa nt me to grow and to grow toward God. Well, I am trying. I am sending stalks out blindly, like a plant seeking the light and groping upward.
"God, where are you, God?"
"I am right here," I can imagine God answering me, so real I must report it. "I am in the very air you breathe. I sit with you at your desk. I look outward with you to regard your vista. I am not lost. I am not missing."
If God is not missing, then why is my sense of God missing? It may be something as simple as "absence makes the heart grow fonder" and God is growing me a fonder heart. For my own good. I could use a fonder heart. I could enjoy
having a heart more fondly open to God and more open to seeing God in all I encounter. Surely, living in New York as I do and encountering great crowds of people as I do' it would be comforting to see the eyes of God looking outward from each face.
"Now you are onto something," I can hear God saying—almost.
If I let myself, I can imagine how God might talk with me, gently, as though trying not to startle a child. "Here I am," I can hear God saying to me,"not lost at all, just misplaced by you. Why do you need to have such a sense of emergency?"
When I have a sense of God, there is no sense of emergency. There is a sense of wonder and calm unfolding. Then I can watch my life as time-lapse photography and see the great good being brought to bear simply because I am practicing enough patience and faith to let God have his way with me. I am cooperating. That is, co- operating.
When I have a sense of God, there is a sense of synchronicity. All things work toward the good, and I am able to see that good when I look with the eyes of faith. But the eyes of faith are blinded right now. I grope in the darkness. Again, I can hear God saying to me, "What darkness? I am right beside you. See things in my light."
The light of God is the light of optimism, the light of hope. The light of God sees all things as potential good. The light of God sees things being made right, and again, more right. The light of God sees all creation as ever coming more perfectly into form— and that includes myself. "I am on the right track," the eyes of faith tell me. They see visible progress and they report to me what they see. "You are well and carefully led."
The light of God is a beacon and we need not be blind to it. I can use it like a flashlight to examine my life and to ask that I be pointed toward the good. There is always some corner of my life that is still dark, some area that is still being run by self-will that can yet be surrendered to God. Take money. In my time I have made a great deal of money. I would like to keep on making money, a great deal of money. This is an area where I do not want to let God run my life for me. I am afraid lest his will for me be less abundant. And so I say, "Sure, God, you can run the seasons and the planets and this green earth, but you cannot run my financial affairs." You see where my faith has holes in it.
And yet a faith with holes in it is better than no faith at all and that is the terrifying point that I have come to lately. I have misplaced my faith. I search for it with both hands but cannot lay hold of it. I have faith, surely I have faith in something, but faith in what? God must be the great reality and we must somehow live our life relative to that. We must on some level be able to grasp God. God must on some level be real as bread.
Two months a year I go to New Mexico. God is real in New Mexico. Clearly visible as the Sacred Mountain or as the clouds that wreathe it. God is in the vast horizons and the far peaks. God is in the snowy crags, the cascading mountain streams, the hawks that ride the thermals. God is everywhere and God is glorious. The Great Creator shows forth in his creation. In New Mexico it is easy to believe.
But ten months a year I live in New York City. God must be just as real in New York. God doesn't choose to live only in scenic beauty. God is everywhere. God is on the crowded street. God is visible in the faces of strangers. God is in place and active in all human affairs. God is in the skyscraper. God is on the brownstone stoop. At the deli. At the newsstand. On the subway platform.
In order to find God, we must look for God and we must begin that looking in our own heart. "God? Are you there?"
"Of course I am here," I can hear God answering, but is that answer just my comfortable imagination?
How can we know when God is real and answering? Must we be content with "It seems to me"? Is conscious contact one-sided?
Every morning I seek to find God. I do it by writing three pages of long-hand writing, a position statement. "Here is where I am, God. Can you find me?" Every morning I find enough of God to go forward. I state where I am and I believe that somewhere the Great Something is listening and responds back. There are other ways to pray. Some people start their days with small books, daily reminders of God. Other people start with sitting meditation. Some people start with both. We are all looking for God, looking for a connection that will feel real enough to get us through the day. What we are seeking is a sense of companionship and connection.
God as daily. God as guidance.
How do we know if we are being guided by God? How do we know if we are moving in the right direction? There is an inner sense of rightness, a feeling that all may yet be puzzling yet all is well. When we are being guided by God, we may not know what step to take months from now, but we will know, usually, the next right step and, taking that step, we again know the next right step that follows. Rarely are we given great bolts of knowledge. God's will comes to us in daily increments, "Do this next."
There are ways that we can romance knowledge of God's will for us. We can take walks, asking God to companion us. On these walks we may feel a strong sense of connection and direction. Walking is simple. Walking is doable. We all do it and we can all do more of it, talking with God.
We can also take ourselves to the page. Writing yields clarity. There is something in moving our hand across the page that can also help to make God's will visible to us. "I don't know what to do'" we write. "It seems to me I should try X." Then, a little later, "I could also try Y." In seeing our alternatives, we can sometimes see the face of God. We are not powerless. We are not choiceless. We are not trapped. We do have dignity. All of this can be revealed by time at the page.
There is a way to live each day that feels in accord with God's will for us. We may act differently at the office. We may be kind to a stranger boarding a bus. Riding crosstown, we might view the leafy green canopy of Central Park and resolve that next time we will walk. All of these choices are points where our life touches God's. God touches our lives everywhere and at all times.
The great question is not "Where is God?" but "Where am I?" Am I pretending that God cannot see me or hear me? Am I pretending to be living a life without God? Most of us do that most of the time. Take me. I am writing and I am wondering what to write next.
Am I asking?
If God is with us every moment, then we can ask for direction at all times. There will never be a moment in which our prayer is unheard, although we may hurry onward, not taking time for the answer. To know God takes a beat. We must reach out and allow the time to feel that what we have reached out to has reached out back to us. Most of us are too hurried to know God. And yet we act as if God is too hurried to know us.
Most of the time we have it inside out. We complain that God has abandoned us when it is we who have abandoned God. God is waiting for us at all times, at all moments. God is always there ready for us to make contact and willing, when we make contact, to make contact back.
"God, are you there?"
"Of course I am here."
Let us start with this idea: "Of course, I am here."
If God is always there and always available, then we are the ones who lag behind. Perhaps we do what I do and tag base with God only in the morning, forgetting about God the rest of the day, just going from thing to thing without taking God into account. Is it possible that in light of this, God gets lonely? Is it possible that God misses us? I think it is possible. I think that God is always glad to hear from us.
"Of course I am glad to hear from you."
Was that thought God or just wishful thinking?
I began this writing by saying that I was estranged from God, and yet I notice how quickly that sense of estrangement passes as I try, however feebly, to be honest and to reach toward God. Perhaps God does not make difficult terms for us. Perhaps we are the ones who make difficult terms for God. Perhaps we are the ones who are so afraid to believe that we believe in our disbelief. Why are we afraid of being gullible? Why are we afraid of being naïve? Why are we afraid of being believers? Is it too much for us— the degree of comfort we can take— if we believe we are on the right track and trying to find God?
Perhaps it is.
It is easy to be addicted to anxiety. It is easy to make worry our home vibration. The world, after all, is tuned to anxiety and worry. We need only switch on CNN to be aware that anxiety is what we are being tutored in. We need only glance at a headline to realize that the "news," as we are trained to perceive it, is all bad news. But what if this news is only half the news? What if good news is as real as bad?
What if God really is the good news?
What if God is real and our attempts to reach God are enough? What if there is no hard test to be passed, no high quotient of misery we are required to undergo? What if there really is a benevolent God, one that will try to work with us as we labor to work with him? What if the harmony that we see in the natural world is possible also in the world of human affairs? What if we can move toward this harmony by simply trying to move toward God? What if the trying is enough? What if God does not play hide and seek with us but stands ready and available for all who seek contact?
What if God really is the Great Comforter?
What if all that stands between us and God is us?
We are back to the same bottom line. If I am uncomfortable, and I am, then what can be done about it? If I have trouble believing, how can I believe? What we are talking about here is "conscious contact," a reliable,feltsense that we are in touch with God and God is in touch with us. Probably the first portal to God comes with slowing down, taking the time in the morning to link up with God, to place our day in God's hands, however we can conceptualize our doing that. For me, writing the three Morning Pages is the way I "turn things over." For others, it may be a more formal prayer: "God, I offer myself to Thee to build with me and do with me what Thou wilt." For still others, it may be more Zen, a quiet period of sitting meditation in which nothing is articulated but everything is somehow addressed and eased. It matters less how you try to link up with God than that you try to link up with God. It doesn't matter that you didn't do it yesterday and that you may forget again to do it tomorrow. What matters is today, the one day that we have got with any certainty. Just for today, I am going to reach out toward God. Just for today, I am going to act as if I am a believer.
The key wordsconscious contactgive us many clues. First of all, we must bring God to our consciousness. We must be aware of God. God must become a variable in our life, Something or Somebody to be dealt with. Next, we must make contact. That is we must reach out and touch God. The very phrase implies that it is possible. Having made contact, we must then seek to hold that contact in our consciousness. God must be given a place in our day and in our thoughts. God must become a part of our mental furniture, as real as the chair we are sitting in.
How do we make God real? How do we convince ourselves that there is a God that gives meaning to life? It is so easy to see life as meaningless, random, capricious.
It is so easy to move point to point in life without ever being able to see a larger, overarching whole, a framework that makes it all have context. What we need is a sense of God as grid. God is real and I am real and the way we interact is real. This is probably why Paul Tillich spoke of God as "the ground of being." This sense of God as the very ground is the sense that we are all looking for. If God is the bedrock, then I can build something of meaning. If God is the bedrock, then life has a sustainable meaning.
So often, we have it backward. We want a faith in God, but we are unwilling to take the actions that make that faith possible. We want faith to predate any action on our part. We want faith to not take faith. We want the luxury of faith without having made the decision of faith. For faith is a decision. We decide to believe in God, and having decided that, we then reach out for conscious contact.
I don't know about you, but I don't want faith in God to cost me anything— not really. Not even a decision. I want my faith to be easy and simple. I want to be able to say "I believe" and keep it just that simple, "I believe." Not "I believe sort of." Not "I believe the best I can." Simply, "I believe." In practice, it goes somewhat more bumpily than that. I might say "I believe" but then add to myself, "Why, if I believe, does it still seem so bumpy? "
Notice that I have used the wordbumpy. That see's to me to be an accurate word. Faith is not all smooth sailing, but it is not all catastrophe either. Faith is bumpy. We don't fall out of the wagon. We just get jostled. Faith is "enough," and enough is not as comfortable as "plenty." I wish I had plenty of faith. I try to have plenty of faith, but what I generally find is that I have "enough." Enough is enough to keep me from throwing in the towel. Enough is enough to keep me in the game. Enough is not enough for me to have deep pockets. I want to be able to dig down into my pockets and keep coming up with handfuls of belief, but the truth is that sometimes I am down to my last two bits and I hold on to that two bits so tightly that no one can get a grip on it but me.
What happens when we clutch our faith tightly? It doesn't work very well. We are barely able to hold on to our faith. When we are able to hold our faith more loosely, "Of course, I believe," then we are able to take in more. "Of course I believe and because I believe I will try X."
They say that faith without works is dead. It is faith that allows us to make our works. It is faith that allows us to take risks. Faith in something greater than ourselves, faith that the bread will somehow land jam side up. Faith is what says, in the face of "bad" news, "I wonder where this is going." Faith knows that life is an evolutionary process and that "all bets are off" is not such a bad position to be in. Faith puts our money on the certain number—"God"—and spins the wheel. It looks risky, but is it?
Faith is no risk at all. It just feels like a risk because we are told faith is risky. We should have more anxiety than we do if we are to believe the odds are not stacked against us. With God on our side, the odds are stackedforus. It may not look like that. It may not seem like that, but it is like that, and that is where faith comes in.
"Tell me God is in charge," I phoned a friend to ask this afternoon.
"Godisin charge," my friend responded, laughing. "What made you doubt it?"
What made me doubt it is that I went to a business lunch where I was told about how smart and aggressive I had to be if I wanted to get anywhere in this world. I was told about a series of actions I had to undertake if I wanted to "make it." Hearing this list of actions, I thought, "Oh, you do it." I thought, "I do not know that my luncheon acquaintance is wrong, but I do know that I cannot race off willy-nilly and try taking these actions helter-skelter. I will have to take them as they come up and as they seem indicated." Then I phoned my friend and asked to be put in the prayer pot.
One of the sanest passages I have ever read belongs to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is the section of that book that is talking about the newcomer's understandable reluctance to turn his worldly affairs over to God. The book states it very simply: God is your new employer.
That is about as complicated as I am able to make it. I need to believe that God does care and will care and that we can strike a bargain with Him. "You be the Father. I'll be the child. You be the principle. I'll be the agent." If this sounds naïve, it is also an accurate way to view things. A look at the natural world should be enough to convince any of us that God knows more of what he is doing than we may know of what we are doing. Sea anemones, red cliffs, lilacs, stars— Something made all these things, and it is to this Something that we now turn, asking what part we are to play in the grand scheme of all this. "How do I fit in?" we ask. It is in asking to fit in and not to run the show that we begin to have a sense of God's will for us.
If I let God be the director, then I am more liable to like the part I am cast in. If I try to be the director, there will never be enough for me: enough glory, enough security, enough limelight. The beauty of having God in charge is that it renders me right- size. And right-size is comfortable.
When there is no overarching viewpoint, God's perspective, it is too easy to panic. It is too easy to take events as they look at the moment and judge them. When God is in charge, all things are fraught with possibility. The most dire circumstance might be revealed to be the most filled with God's good intentions. Out of apparent disaster can come the greatest good.
A friend of mine underwent a harrowing divorce. Her husband of fifteen years left her and, in the wake of his leaving, a string of infidelities was revealed. My friend clung to her faith in God. One day at a time she managed to get through her divorce with dignity and grace. She grieved. She ranted and raved and cried, but she did not drink herself to death or run off with someone inappropriate. For years a professional painter, she kept working at her art. She put days and months together, striving always to do what seemed to her to be "the next right thing." Little by little, she edged herself back from what seemed to her to be the brink. Out of the devastating loss, self- worth was born.
The career that she had always pursued but seen as secondary to her husband's career now took on enough muscle and sinew to be her mainstay and support. The many skills she had used to be a good wife now began to be seen in a clearer light: she was good with money, good with managing people, good with juggling the demands of a household and a career. All of this had always been true, but she had never been able to see it as true. When she had the faith to go forward depending upon God to give her a definition of herself, she began to see the lineaments of her own remarkable courage and fortitude. She began to become a woman that she herself could like and respect. And all of this was born out of the apparent catastrophe of "losing" her husband.
In order to have esteem, we must behave in estimable ways. It is easier to behave in estimable ways if we cling to our faith. If we make a daily decision to act as if there is a God and all things just might be working as they are supposed to. If we believe that God is in charge and that all things will work toward the good, then we do not need to act out of desperation. We can take the time to allow a solution to suggest itself. We do not need to act with panicked self-will.
My friend the painter was urged by some of her well-meaning friends to take part-time work, any work, that would bring some cash in. "My God! You've lost your husband! You're a woman alone! You need something safe and steady to fall back on!" She listened, but the advice did not resonate as correct for her, and so she did the next right thing as it suggested itself to her, putting the finishing touches onto a portrait. After all, she had been a portrait artist for many years married, so why not continue now that she was divorced? For all the years of her married life, she had worked as a painter.
Should she abandon that life because her husband had left her? Shouldn't she at least finish the portrait commission she was working on at the time he walked out?
That portrait led to a second portrait, and that to a third. A steady flow of work seemed to be gently stabilizing. Her painting skills, honed over twenty-five years, turned out to be more valuable than, say, her working part-time at a florist's. True, she had no regular paycheck, but she did have a slow-and-steady stream of clients who sought her out. Because she was able to resist the temptation to panic, she was able to keep herself from going off on a path that might not have been right for her. Because she asked herself what God's will was rather than just pursuing her own panicky solution, she became able to expand into a larger definition of herself as an artist rather than contract to a smaller definition of herself as an ex-wife. "Then he left her and she had to go to work at a florist's shop. . . ."
Very often when we are in a panic about faith, it is because God is making us larger. We do not see how we are going to be able to make ends meet, and we doubt that God is going to do that for us or through us. We are afraid we are being made smaller, and yet for some of us the temptation to rush back to what once was a right size and is no longer is a very real temptation. "I'll just cut my losses," we decide, and then we set about trying to wedge ourselves back into a former definition of our self that no longer holds true. What happens? It doesn't work very well. We cannot go back, but we do not see how we can go forward either. And the answer is that we cannot go forward of our own steam, left to our own devices. In order to go forward and become larger, we are going to need the grace of God.
It is easy to recognize people who routinely operate out of the grace of God. They are those people who seem able to rise up and meet whatever challenge life throws at them. They are the ones who become larger, not smaller in adversity. They are the ones who are able, with faith, to shoulder their way through. I have such a friend, Elberta.
When her daughter was diagnosed as having a brain tumor, Elberta resolved that they would beat it,itbeing cancer. The odds definitely seemed stacked against them, but for Elberta there was no hearing that. She was determined that her daughter would get better. They would undertake any form of chemotherapy, any form of rehabilitation that seemed indicated, that held the slightest hope.
Cooking special meals, devising special games that helped with memory loss, Elberta went to work to help her daughter get better. As her daughter underwent bout after bout of chemotherapy and long stints living in rehabilitation centers, Elberta made her daughter the focus of her life and attention. We worried that Elberta would burn herself out, but she seemed to draw on a superhuman strength. She acted with confidence that she was doing as God would have her do. She saw her daughter as being restored to health, as being able to resume again her challenging career as a horse trainer. She counted each day as a day toward recovery and made each day's small victory the focus of her consciousness. Her diligence paid off. Her daughter did get better. The cancer went into remission. Memory began to return. The daily chores of horse schooling began to come back into place.
When, after a year with her cancer in remission, the same daughter had a devastating carriage driving accident that left her in a coma, Elberta one more time resolved that they would beat the odds. Her daughter lay hovering between life and death. Elberta saw her as vital and alive and healthy again. No matter what the odds were, she saw that her daughter would walk and talk again. She would have a memory. She would resume a life. She would train horses. And so' one more time, she set about rehabbing her daughter from her new challenge. One more time, her days were spent at the rehab facility. One more time, her own life was put on hold while she focused on her daughter's crisis. Returning to the word games for memory and to card games for concentration, Elberta sat daily by her daughter's side, coaching her gently back up the long mountain down which she had tumbled. One more time, her daughter rallied and got better against all odds.
"You need to take some time to yourself," Elberta was advised by a well- meaning physical therapist. "You cannot spend your whole life with your daughter."
"Oh, but I can. This is my life right now," Elberta replied. "What's six months out of a whole lifetime, out of eighty years?"
As I write this, Elberta's daughter is walking and talking and beginning to work with her beloved horses again.
In order to work with God, we must assume that God is willing to work with us. To do that, we must assume that God can start right where we are and not at some imaginary place we have to get to in order to meet Him. God is not waiting to rendezvous with us once we have earned the right to his attention. God is waiting for us right now, just where we are.
Very often when we think about what we would like to have happen in our lives, we cast ourselves very far forward and out of the day we are in. No wonder everything seems so impossible and so difficult. We cast ourselves far into the future where we stand alone and buffeted, wondering where God is.
God works in the day that we actually have going on. God's miracles are miniature daily miracles. They are miracles of evolution and miracles of progress. They are the small miracles that add up to large miracles. They are tiny right steps that lead us in the right direction. If we want to find God, we need first to find ourselves. That is where God is. Right with us.
Which brings me back to where I am in relationship to God at this time. I began this writing by saying that I felt lost. That God felt lost to me. This is no longer true. By the simple act of moving my hand across the page, I am able one more time to trace the progress of God's hand across my life.