What Experiences Opened You to Faith: Old First E-pistle 04.29.16

What Experiences Opened You to Faith: Old First E-pistle 04.29.16

I have been asked to share my faith journey as part of the UCC pastors’ retreat next week. Since the theme of the retreat is “how to be the church in a time of cultural change,” I want to try recounting my story with an eye to what it might say about how people can be helped towards faith. As a pastor, I think about that question a lot. It is after all the church’s mission — to welcome people into our shared faith.

And in our secular era, it’s easy to note (and suffer, mourn, complain about!) all the socio-structural barriers that block (or make less effective) the church’s welcome, sharing and believing. Everything from ‘long work hours’ and ‘little time away from electronic connectivity’ to ‘shared custody’ and ‘the proverbial Sunday morning soccer practices’ make participation in church more difficult, perhaps even unlikely.

But a more self-searching (and honest!) church approach to these kinds of questions about effectiveness in changing cultural circumstances might be to acknowledge that people make room in crowded lives for what’s most important to them. If faith (and how church participation helps us with our faith) doesn’t rate very high… If folks’ faith is weak or non-existent… Then church gets crowded out by other commitments that are valued more highly.

Therefore, we might ask about what makes it so hard to believe is our secular age? How do the rationalist, scientific assumptions of our modern worldview actually make it harder to believe (or even make sense of what faith is talking about)? Does human thinking today just have less capacity for religious possibilities, experience, reflection and language?

Consider how folks today expect clear, scientific explanations: we look for our realities to be tangible, visible, at least detectable. Rather than any appreciation of encountering that which is beyond us, we think of mystery as a sign of human limitation or failure.

We prefer to see ourselves “empowered” — in charge of our lives and our destiny, rather than humbly acknowledging all the ways our lives are dependent on others and on forces beyond our control or even understanding. More attractive is a worldview that makes us the measure of all things, rather than a small link in the multiplicity of chain reactions in God’s complex and mysterious creation.

Are there experiences to highlight or assumptions to encourage that could make it easier to comprehend, swallow, adopt, and feel we are thriving in a Christian worldview, that is for so many “foreign” these days. Can there be “a setup” for religious understanding:

~ individuals aren’t ever the center of even their own smallest universes;

~ we’re all affected in ways inexplicable, profound, even determinative by others as well as forces we cannot fathom;

~ while lives can be radically different, ultimately, we are all tracking on path that is as universal as unavoidable?

Are there ways of raising children or preparing individuals such that a religious outlook is more palatable, attractive, accessible, meaningful …for ourselves and for others we hope to recommend it to?

Does my personal faith story shed any light on these kinds of questions? That’s what I’m asking myself as I try and figure out how to explain my faith (where it comes from and where it’s gotten me to) to clergy peers.

I think my faith has been majorly affected by so many people and by the church over the years. This will have to be part of the faith journey I relate to colleagues, how in some sense, the church has become the family or the home where I have lived my life. But much earlier than that, back in my childhood, was there something that made me more open to faith or even prone to believe?

Paul wrote about himself to the church in Philippi, saying, ”If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (3:4-6)

Paul goes on to write how all that he once counted on, he came to regard as loss. His confidence in the flesh was supplanted by his faith in Jesus Christ.

My story is different. I think I have always trusted in grace, even long before I might have been able to say with any clear assertion that I believe in a dogmatic sense (which might have been high school, or even as late as the end of college?). But that “trusting in grace,” I think was already believing.

I am the first of three children, from a family with a lot of struggles, both between and within each of us. My parents both suffered from significant personal problems that left them less than present or available to their children.

Of the three of us, I’m the only one with any faith if by that I mean in a “participating in church” sense. As the children of a non-believing father and a mother who had faith (and taught Sunday School through my whole childhood) but was eventually disappointed by and left the church… Well, though I’m not sure of the spiritual math exactly, 1 out of 3 is barely a replacement rate — and certainly not any population growth to expand the church and further the faith!

But as I think back on my childhood, it occurs to me that my personal experiences — fairly different from those of my siblings — might account for my openness to and eventually taking on of faith as a primary approach to life and the world. Much of my social position in the family, particularly as the first-born “model child” (with a good dose of secondary role as “the clown”), opened me to a life of faith. Of course, Paul insists that faith is a gift given to us by God, but, perhaps, there were realities in my situation that made it easier for me to accept this gift:

~ my family wasn’t an easy place to grow up, and I was in many ways, a kid faced with adults’ problems (and adult problems), but left without consistent adult support. On some level, I always knew I needed help, even as I ended up becoming pretty self-reliant. Is it surprising then that I was open to the promise of a benevolent parent-figure God who understood and cared about my situation?

~ in my family, where folks were often and visibly falling apart, human brokenness and the fragility of individuals and relations never appeared far-fetched or even an avoidable conclusion. In the world I first came to know well, I suspect it was easier to believe in the anthropology of original sin: we were all sort of out of control… or at least very vulnerable. The Christian explanation seemed closer to our truth than imagining we were or could be in charge of our ourselves and our world!

Most young children, I suspect, view their parents understandably and properly as omniscient and all-powerful (and in the process of growing up, growing away and taking charge of their own lives come to recognize their parents’ humanness). If one’s parents — in their frailty — cannot fulfill the young child’s naive image, might one’s need for such reassurance be projected outward, on the universe or onto a diety?

~ while, even as a child, I was often the most controlled person “in the room,” I surely knew that all my steadiness and equilibrium could not immunize me from the effects of others’ behaviours, particularly my parents. I knew I was not in charge. But somehow, by grace?, I found enough room — or agency — in the world I experienced, one I could not control. If there was room to navigate in the narrow space available, why not claim what you really have for making a life, rather than pretend you can have the whole world?  (Also, in a family full of secrets many of which we knew were self-protected fallacies, I came out desiring to live with realities, even hard realities on the table and in the clear light of day!)

~ likewise, while the predictabilities offered by a scientific outlook were attractive to me (who doesn’t want to be able to control one’s destiny and duck the hurts?), in my situation, predictability was a pipe-dream, easily seen as more ‘wishful thinking’ or ‘make believe’ than a religious worldview which imagined forces we couldn’t see, explain or control. Unknowability and surprise were my experience and fact, not some enemy that I believed or fooled myself human ingenuity could outsmart.

~finally, my role in the family was sort of a set-up for the Christian teaching that life is found in service. Eclipsing my own needs in order to meet others’ needs or the family’s needs was how I remember being before I can remember…

“So, Michael,” you might be saying to yourself, “you’re prescribing family dysfunction, weak parenting and kids facing difficult early years and hard upbringings as the road to faith?”

No, of course not. First of all, I’m the only believer of the three sons! But also because I know you all have come to faith on different roads and from different experiences.

But I do wonder, looking back at my own journey, if maybe as Christian families, we shouldn’t be trying to impress on our children from the get —

~ That everyone is fallibly human, and we all need help. And being loved has no relationship to one’s being perfect or without needs.

~ That the myth of independence and self-sufficiency is misleading and unfair. Rather we are inextricably part of a mysteriously complex web of dependencies, so complex that in fact, that unintended consequences are not uncommon, but also so complex that when one link in the chain fails, often there are others to support us.

~ That parents, when they can be there wonderfully and reliable for their children, are able to such an “super-human” accomplishment as a reflection of how God is there for us.

~ That we inevitably and in ways we do not always understand affect one another. And are likewise affected by others. To harm or good. It’s one of the most basic decisions before us as humans in our living: will we be a blessing or a bain to others.

I wonder with somewhat countercultural lessons like that, if faith might not be more of an option for people?

See you in church,

Michael