In his book Secrets In The Dark, Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner, in case you’re like me and will be driven nuts wondering how to say that) writes that “Well, we are believers, you and I , that’s why we’re here—at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed. Believing in him is not the same as believing things about him such as that he was born of a virgin and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, it is a matter of giving our hearts to him, of come hell or high water putting our money on him, the way a child believes in a mother or a father, the way a mother or a father believes in a child.”
This kind of believing is at the heart of the Second Step, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” This is a belief in the God of our understanding, not a belief (or set of beliefs) about God. It is not so much a belief that God exists, or that God has certain attributes, but rather a belief and trust that God has the power and the desire to deliver us from the raging maelstrom of heart and mind brought on by the knocks life delivers. It is a belief that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said to his frightened disciples at the Last Supper, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” a trust that we can indeed know this kind of peace in the here and now.
So how do we come to this kind of believing, especially if we’re not too keen on the whole God thing to begin with? It’s a legitimate question. The more people I meet, the more I’m surprised that anyone believes in God at all. A lot of people have been frankly beat up by religion. Women have been told that their gifts don’t matter. People in the LGBTQ community have been told that “God hates fags” or some other such nonsense. Others have been directly abused by representatives of the church and seen other representatives of the church protect the abusers. Whole hosts of people have been told that the only way to relate to God is as “Father”, which is great if you have a great dad but is tough to swallow if every mention of the word father brings to mind memories of a man who abused you or abandoned you. A lot more people have witnessed these beatings and been turned off to religion entirely. Still others have been told that there is no place for their questions, that doubt is a sin, that they need in effect to turn off their brains and push the “I believe” button. Then there are those who grew up going to church but never saw (or were helped to see) the connection between what happened Sunday morning and what happened in their lives the rest of the week.
The good news is, the kind of belief and trust described in the 2nd Step doesn’t require turning off one’s brain, turning a blind eye to church-inflicted suffering, or turning into a “weekend warrior for God”. In fact, the end result is quite likely to be the exact opposite of all of those things. But for now, all that is needed is a willingness to believe, or, failing that, a willingness to be willing. As Bill W. puts it in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, “We needed to ask ourselves but one short question. ‘Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?’ As soon as a man can say that he does believe, or is willing to believe, we emphatically assure him that he is on his way.” (Note: this is true for women, too; gender-inclusive language unfortunately hadn’t been recognized as important in 1939.) As I heard it put recently in a meeting by one of the most serene people I know, “All I needed to understand about God at first is that there is one, and I ain’t it.”
Now, right about here some of my Lutheran clergy colleagues are probably about to explode. “Wait just a minute!” I can imagine them saying. “What you’re proposing is some kind of namby-pamby, mealy-mouthed, self-centered feel-good spirituality divorced from theology! That’s heresy!” Not at all. I love theology. I focused on theology in seminary, and I’m pretty good at it. I was trained by Jesuits and Thomists among others, and I can debate soteriology, eschatology and pneumatology with the best of them. But that’s not the starting place, and it’s definitely not the ending place. When Jesus walked down the beach and found Simon and Andrew mending their nets, he didn’t give them a theological examination. He simply said, “Follow me.” He didn’t even tell them his name before they dropped the nets and hit the road with him! Learning about God isn’t a prerequisite for the journey, it’s part of the journey. The goal of spirituality is to fall in love with God, and anyone who has ever fallen in love can tell you that you don’t need to know everything about someone, down to their shoe size and their cholesterol score, to fall in love with them. As Lutheran biblical studies professor Mark Allan Powell says in his book Loving Jesus,
- We cannot have a relationship with our Christology, but we can have a relationship with our Christ.
- Our soteriology cannot save us from our sins, but our Savior can.
- And no matter how much we love theology – it will never love us back.
So, if we have this willingness to believe, now what? It’s tough to trust without a relationship, and it’s tough to have a relationship with someone you’re not talking to. So talk to God. If the name God doesn’t work for you, use Goddess. Or Frank. Or Mary. Or Alannis. Or Whoever-you-are-that-I’m-trying-to-relate-to. Judaism believes the name of God is too holy to be spoken anyway, so I’m not sure the name matters all that much, as long as it’s not your own name. (Remember “there is one and I ain’t it”?) Don’t worry about the right words, or even about having words at all. (More on praying without words in a future post.) Talk about your day. Talk about what you’re worried about. Talk about what you’re scared of. Talk about what makes you mad. Or start small. One recovering friend of mine tells me that he started with looking up at the light fixture on his bedroom ceiling and saying the word “please” every morning and the words “thank you” every night. Another friend tells the story of praying about his resentment towards his ex-wife, which in the beginning meant saying, “God, you know I don’t mean this and I don’t believe it, and I don’t even believe in you, but I ask you to bless that bitch!” In time, his prayer changed, and he changed.
What matters is being willing, and then taking action based on that willingness. Even fumbling, stumbling, half-hearted, confused action. After all, “fumbling, stumbling, half-hearted and confused” is a pretty accurate description of Jesus’ disciples, and we call those clowns saints now. The action itself has the power to change us, and in my experience God meets us more than halfway.
Next in the series: Made A Decision