“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.”
~ Sarah Bessey
Abba, where are you when the young and innocent die, when a friend is murdered or a sister-in-law is taken by cancer? Where are you when a husband who pursues your heart has also wrestled with addictions, when many self-proclaimed Christians in our circles have been defeated by sexual infidelity? Where are you when optimistic Bible verses and non empathetic “Christian” phrases are being slung in my direction in a half-hearted attempt to diminish my suffering? Where are you when refugees die from starvation, illness, and violence in their quest for safety amidst unjust politics – were you not once a refugee? Where are you when another young black man is lost to long-seated hatred in a country built for the white man on the backs of the brown? Where are you? Abba, where are you?
My questions have been soaring and flipping through space for about three years now, childhood letters sent off to the elusive Santa Claus who never writes back, and in October, the prayers just stopped showing up in my journal. The pages that began with “Abba, …” transitioned into collections of other streams of consciousness, many of which are angry rants and depressive contemplations and apathetic resolutions. Decorating my journal with these disgruntled monologues hasn’t necessarily transitioned my tumultuous days into carefree, barefooted walks across a Costa Rican beach, but it has felt less excruciating than watching earnest prayer after earnest prayer get swallowed by the ever-growing darkness. Really, all I have been begging for is someone to walk in and light a tea candle.
But the wall I keep banging my head against, more so than even seemingly unanswered prayers, is the purpose of it all. Why do we pray so fervently for healing only to watch in torment as a loved one exhales their last breath after an agonizing wrestling match with cancer? Why do we strive to change the narrative of racism and inequality in our faith communities if the overarching trajectory of our country and church culture never seems to improve – if anything, it seems to continue its rise in aggression and tragedy? Why do we try so faithfully to follow Jesus if the Christian community faces divorce, addiction, and infidelity at nearly the same rates as the general population? Are our prayers simply the crutches we use to hobble through life with a little optimism?
Yes, I know. I know. I have memorized all the church-y responses to these questions – “I pray to make myself look more like Jesus, not the other way around. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.” But these neat one-liner spiritual ointments have become the wheel on my bed frame that I always ram my pinky toe into – because I did pray. I pleaded with the Lord as if her life depended on it, as if his sobriety hinged on it, as if the justice axis of the world spun on it, as if my own beating heart survived on it. And the prayers bubbling up from my gut did not change the outcomes, and, even worse, they did not cleanse me to look more like Jesus. If anything, they agitated my insides as the best I could muster in a day was subjecting others to my negativity, anticipating the cracks in people, and wondering if a God exists to hear my prayers at all.
* * *
Shortly before or after this spiritual vacation to the dump, my Monday evening Bible study crew picked up Out of Sorts by Sarah Bessey. I have been savoring every page like a cup of morning coffee, sipping on the new concept that there just might be a different way of faith altogether – one that does not require a suppression of my questions nor a complete turning away from the Jesus I can’t seem to fully release. Instead, it is the in between, the “Yes, and…,” the “Yes, I adore Jesus, and I have some serious doubt and trust issues on how this whole life and faith thing works.” And while her entire book feels like an encouragement addressed to me, this quote is the one that finally lit the tea candle I’ve been begging for all along:
“Ricoeur [a French philosopher] thought we began our lives in the first naïveté: basically we take everything we are taught at face value. Some of us never move out of this stage in our spiritual formation and growth. We simply stay faithful to what we were taught at the beginning. But most of us, at some point, will encounter the second stage, 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 […] but those who continue to press forward can find what Ricoeur called a second naïveté […] 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.'”
~ Sarah Bessey
The permission to put the breaks on my frantic prayers, to admit that I know so very little about the world and myself, to infuse breath into the questions that have begged to be noticed all along, has been so healing. The writing of this blog post that makes me sound as if I have 100% lost my innocent, faithful, obedient Christian mind feels immensely liberating. Because in my wild surrender to doubts and questioning, I have been rediscovering Jesus in untouched corners I never would have wandered before. It’s almost as if he has been waiting for me to close my Bible, shut my journal, and walk out of Church so he could smile and say, “hey, I’m out here too.” And I’ve been seeing him everywhere – in yoga poses that draw me back to breath, in late night cries on my couch with a best a friend, in watching an ocean sunset with my husband, in mid-day belly laughter with co-workers, in kind nurses and doctors, in book studies daring to tackle racism in church, and in the hope that as my pen begins to craft prayers once more, the questions and the doubts might just lead me into my second naïveté.