Only Help My Unbelief
Growing up in church, answering what I believed was a call to full-time ministry, marrying a pastor and entering full-time ministry through an alternate route, serving in pastoral ministry with John for 19 years, following the wind of the Spirit out west as stateside missionaries… At some point, or at several points along the way, the vision becomes blurry. Weariness sets in. Disillusionment is for real.
I’ve never chucked it all. Well, not officially, and not for long. For a dark stretch about ten years ago, I took my usual seat with my kids in the front row on the left hand side of the sanctuary, and I prayed that no one would know I didn’t believe any of it on any given Sunday. Scandalous for the pastor’s wife to be a wandering atheist. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word: a [without] theos [God]. At times, on a Sunday morning or any other day, I was without God, wrestling with every neatly packaged doctrine I had ever been taught or given directly or indirectly. Somehow, in the midst of it God wasn’t a–Shannon; God kept love for me. Apparently, nothing could separate me from the love of God.
I prayed two prayers during that undoing. I clung to them with white knuckles, looking back over my shoulder and spitting them at unanswered questions and at the Accuser (I never doubted the existence of the evil one). It was an act of faith (what little I could muster), an act of rebellion against the crisis rumbling in my core. I let them rise up and spill out in exhale, as release, a sigh, and sometimes a gasp. Then I inhaled a tiny bit of hope, like oxygen to my dried out cells.
“I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9)
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6–The story here is of Jesus talking about his body and his blood. The disciples looked at one another and noted to Jesus that what he had told the gathered crowd was just not easy to grasp. Many left him that day. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked if they are going to go away also. Their response is what served as my prayer. I imagine, though I don’t know for sure, that the discliples shrugged their shoulders and answered Jesus with quiet words, with questions still in their voices, but with the only reply they knew to give–“I don’t know where else we would go. We’re with you. Even if it doesn’t always make sense.” That’s my observation. Proper scholars and exegetes will likely have a purer commentary.)
Many elements of my life, my self, my faith underwent a sifting during those days and months. Excess junk got tossed by the wayside. God, in infinite wisdom and intimate care, knew my heart needed blockages cleared, arteries widened and opened up, my whole vascular system flushed with Living Water. With all that calcification in the way, my growth had become stunted, my insides stale and withering from the debris. The words of Isaiah to the people of Israel resonated as the light began to break through the darkness.
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43)
Lent is an open door to a journey. Of our own free will, we enter the wilderness. We confess that we believe, and we ask for help in our unbelief. We shrug our shoulders and sigh that we don’t know where else to go. And then, we keep walking, in faith. We let Jesus be for us the Bread of Life and the Living Water. Cleansing comes. Our restored systems give way to green and growth. Little by little, weariness wanes, disillusionment fades, our sight grows clear again. Of course, there will be more points along the way, another Lenten season or an extended stay in barren or overgrown places. When the time comes, it carries the invitation to enter into the mystery of God’s love, to travel into the depths of a love that will not let us go.