This is a blog post that’s been a long time coming, and maybe even one I’ve avoided. My YAGM experience isn’t over, but the end is approaching quickly, and it’s made me start to take stock of my expectations of what this year was going to be like.
Looking back at my first post (The Question of Why), I realized that I haven’t been entirely honest with one of my main motivations for joining this program. I told everyone that I wanted this year to help me refocus my faith, or strengthen my faith, or expand my faith. But deep down, I think I was hoping it would “fix” my faith.
As I explained in that post, my faith hasn’t felt the way it used to when I was younger for some time now. It’s a powerful source of insecurity for me, as I listen to others around me describe their intense relationships with God/Jesus, or watch members of my community pray with earnest tears streaming down their cheeks. Sometimes I felt like a fraud – a missionary who isn’t even sure about her beliefs? Granted, this mission I’m on isn’t about convincing others about my religion, or preaching specific theology, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by or even ashamed of the lack of radical change I saw in my faith. Also, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which can send me into damaging thought spirals of not being good enough or becoming irreparably broken and alone.
I think I’ve been waiting for a specific feeling: that powerful, “God is here” thrill I once felt in my very bones that made it all make sense. My reliable, go-to sources for that feeling – praying, reading the Bible, attending worship – were letting me down, and I felt unmoored.
This isn’t to say that I have not felt that feeling at all this year. I have felt God’s presence during walks in a nearby forest, in the hugs of eager 1st graders, at a praise band concert in a huge arena, on the back of a boat speeding across a lake. I have encountered the love of God in places I have never discovered it before. But it’s a lot to ask for one year or one experience to satiate all of my spiritual hunger. And after a while, YAGM life becomes real life, with all its distraction and routine. My imagined idyll of uninterrupted God-time just wasn’t materializing the way I’d hoped.
It became clear that I wouldn’t be returning home with the perfect, “intentional” faith I had promised myself. What would I return with?
A huge turning point in my year was the discovery of Barbara Brown Taylor. You may know her already – a prolific pastor-turned-author who writes honest, beautiful books about life and faith in a changing world. If I could, I would just copy and paste paragraphs from her books here to explain my faith journey, it’s that spot-on. I highly highly recommend you read an Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Darkness, and Leaving Church, three books that have fundamentally altered my perception of my own faith. The profound wakeup call I received from her work can be summarized into three main points:
- Not having the faith I think I should have, or that others have, or that I have been told to have, is OKAY, and even good. God does not love me any less, nor does my life hold any less meaning or purpose. You can’t fix faith – it moves and changes like waves, and everyone goes through dark nights (or just really cloudy evenings) of the soul. “The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.” (Learning to Walk in the Darkness)
- My faith comes alive when I am in community with others – it is more about relationship for me right now, less so about quiet, meditative prayer (which, again, is OKAY). Much of my perceived difficulty has been with my lack of ability to talk to God when I am alone – I feel like there is a spotlight shining on me, but I’ve forgotten all my lines. When I get to share hospitality with strangers, though, or have conversations about love and radical justice, or debate the meaning of Bible stories, my passion is genuine, and I feel God connecting me with people in my life that SHe knew I needed at that time, or who needed me. “I am not sure that I served Christ in them as much as I met Christ in them.” (Leaving Church)
- Faith is not steady. I cannot expect to maintain the strong flame of faith in the exact same manner as I did as a teenager, or for it to stay the same color. But even during what I perceive as a failing, or an absence of faith, my faith community gives me strength, and the message they share is one of love and hope, and that is worth believing in at all times, while I ride my own waves of change. “This faith will not offer me much to hold on to…[or] a safe place to settle. I think I can [live] inside this cloudy evening of the soul for a while longer, where even my sense of God’s absence can be a token of God’s presence if I let it.” (Learning to Walk in the Darkness)
So I’m not “fixed”, not in the way I’d hoped I’d be. And I still struggle with my own perception of faith and God. But I do feel that I am learning to have grace with myself. More and more, I feel freed from expectations of what faith should look like, or feel like, and I feel hopeful that I will continue to learn and explore as my journey continues. I honestly don’t think I would have discovered this new perspective were it not for the self-discovery of my YAGM year, and the gentle guidance and space to grow provided by my host community and my fellow volunteers. I am so grateful for them, and for everything I have experienced this year.
Now, and when I leave, and as long as I need to – as long as I can – I’m going to sit in this dark night. Not searching desperately for a way out, or for a flashlight, or for someone to sit beside me. Just sitting, with deep breaths and self love.
“The dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It’s about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.” – Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Darkness