This is my first essay about faith since launching The Hump Day Happy. I set out to refrain from using faith as a crutch in my writing, because it’s so easy for me to fall back on Christian vernacular and appeal to a solely Christian audience instead of challenging myself to write for everyone. And honestly, after you read the essay, you’ll understand why I haven’t been in a great place to share about my faith this year. However, I do feel compelled to share a peek into this journey with you periodically. It would be inauthentic for me not to. I pray if anyone else finds themselves in the same dark places I’ve wandered through this year that you’ll find hope in these words. And I hope those who don’t share my beliefs can get something out of this as well. As always, don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions or want to say, “me too!”
I had all the best intentions for Advent this year. I really did. I wanted to dive right into the season in all its spiritual anticipation with some kind of wonderful devotional—there are so many resources available. I wanted to buy the candles and the wreath and do the whole ritual with our family for the first time. I wanted to feel all the feels.
But then, I didn’t. We were out of town the week of Thanksgiving, and when we got back, Advent had already begun. Julia’s birthday was December 1. Time just seemed to slip right through my fingers, and now here we are, one week away from Christmas day, and I have reflected on the birth of Christ approximately twice this month.
I want to blame this on the season, on the busyness, on how late Thanksgiving was. But if I’m being honest, a large part of my Advent apathy is my own spiritual fatigue that has seemed to come and go for months, waxing and waning like the phases of the moon. A few years ago, I heard a speaker say that faith is a spiritual gift in itself. That some are just blessed with the ability to believe and embrace faith without questioning—and that others have to wrestle. I remember thinking at the time how thankful I was that I had that gift of faith: this wholesale, all-in, no-questions-asked belief that never wavered. Being a Christian has been as easy as breathing for as long as I can remember.
In 2019, though, it hasn’t been so effortless. I have had serious questions and doubts. I’ve found myself disappointed and angry over and over again at the state of American Christianity and have wondered why God seems to stay silent in the face of so much ignorance, hate, injustice and shallowness within the church and in the world at large. And to be honest, I’ve just kind of avoided God all year.
I think the worst part of this time has been struggling silently. No one could’ve possibly known the depth of my struggle, of course—I’m really, really good at saying all the right things and going to all the Bible studies and showing up at all the church events. Who could I possibly ask? How could I articulate how I was feeling? Would anyone’s responses even help, or would their answers seem trite and manufactured to my cynical, questioning mind? People have always come to me with this stuff. I didn’t know how or who to ask for help.
Additionally, I abruptly jumped off the Christian Performance Hamster Wheel I’ve always enjoyed so much and found there was not much actual intimacy between the Creator and me when all the ways I used Christian culture to meet my emotional and social needs were gone. I had all the lines memorized, but nowhere to perform—what was left?
This past Sunday, we attended the church I think we’ll join soon. The sermon was about John the Baptist and his doubts about Jesus while John was in prison. John hears about the miracles Jesus is performing and the people he’s spending time with, and yet he sends a message to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, but not in the ways John thought he would (or should). He didn’t heal everyone or fix every problem. He didn’t rescue the Jews from their political persecution. He didn’t even deprive himself and live an ascetic lifestyle in the wilderness like John—instead, he was always drinking wine and enjoying good food at parties before healing random people and making all the religious people upset. In just about every way, he didn’t live up to John’s or anyone else’s expectations.
To illustrate, the pastor so honestly and humbly communicated his own questions and doubts, which were so similar to my own. He made it so clear that the Bible, from start to finish, is a story about people not understanding God, but being captivated and ultimately transformed by him despite their doubts. “The dissonance between what we want and expect God to be and what he actually is is present throughout Scripture. The Bible is full of people asking very blunt, honest questions about God. Jesus isn’t bothered by your questions.”
Jesus’ response to John and the way this pastor explained it brought me to tears. In Matthew 11:6, Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (NRSV) The word for offense signifies a disillusionment so strong it causes someone to walk away. Jesus knew his message and his methods were not what people expected, yet he allowed the tension to hang in the air and the mystery to remain. He asked them simply to trust and wait. And they did, for the same reasons I do—there is something irresistibly compelling and transforming about Jesus, even if we don’t understand him fully. So, in essence, he’s saying, “Blessed are those who don’t give up too soon.”
Fortunately, something I never lost was a stubborn belief that God is real and he is listening. I didn’t have certainty about much else, but I did believe I could be honest with him. I finally got my journal out earlier this month and instead of doing my dutiful Bible study time, I just wrote a letter to God. It was very frank. I expressed my frustrations, doubts and spiritual exhaustion.
After a few minutes of sitting in silence with my angst, a thought popped into my head to look at the story of Elijah and God at the mountain of Horeb (to be honest I thought the story was about Moses until I Googled “Moses mountain God wind fire whisper” and realized it was actually Elijah).
To summarize, Elijah is a prophet who has served God for many years, and he’s on the run for his life when we find him in 1 Kings 19. He retreats to the wilderness, sits down next to a bush and asks God to take his life. “I have had enough, Lord,” he says. He falls asleep, and an angel is there when he wakes up to offer him a snack. Then he falls asleep again and the angel makes him eat again before he travels 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God.
God himself appears to Elijah in a cave and asks him what he’s doing there. Elijah is not happy and doesn’t mince words with God. “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.”
God tells Elijah to step out onto the mountain and wait for him to pass by.
“A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
God talks to Elijah again, asking the same question and receiving the same response. This time, though, God gives Elijah specific instructions to appoint his successor, Elisha. He promises to reserve a small remnant of faithful Israelites.
I broke down and sobbed from relief reading this story. Not that I’m some kind of prophet or being persecuted in any way, but I so relate to Elijah—he had doubts and frustrations, but still maintained a stubborn belief in God that led him to have this incredible encounter with the creator of the universe.
I do believe God never changes, but like any of us, he is multifaceted and can show up differently for different people in different circumstances. For Elijah in his crisis and for me in mine, here’s what I felt God was communicating:
The Lord gives you rest. Rest from all the working and performing and ask your questions.
The Lord nourishes. Be a learner and a seeker for a while. Do things that nourish your soul.
The Lord provides others to continue the work. The world will not fall apart without you jumping in to help.
The Lord is a low whisper, a thin silence. For you, in this season, I am not in the megachurch, the impressive theology words or busy vocational ministry. I’m not in a pat on the back or even in the satisfaction you receive from “making a difference.”
I’m in your daughter’s hugs. I’m in that Christmas hymn and the Sunday Eucharist. I’m in the pages of your journal. I’m with you when you stop trying to perform. I’m with you when you can hear me whisper.
Advent didn’t work out like I hoped this year. This entire year didn’t work out like I hoped, honestly. But as I sit here in the final weeks of 2019 thinking about the birth of Jesus, I am filled with unexplainable hope and anticipation. This tiny seed of faith I cling to reminds me of that remnant of Israelites God promised Elijah. It’s small, but it’s been tested, and it’s the real thing. So many of my ideas and expectations of who God is and what he should do have been stripped away, and I’m like a spiritual Kindergartner ready to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. I’ve lost the ability to fake it, and I think that’s the best gift God could’ve given me this year.
My prayer going forward is this tiny seed of faith would grow quietly in me to produce a vine with simple, humble fruit—like the grapes moms slice up to put in their kids’ lunchboxes, not the prize-winning watermelon at the county fair.
Blessings to all of you out there who, like me, are clinging to your tiny seed of faith this Advent season. May we not give up too soon, and may we experience the blessing of intimately knowing the God who never gives up on us.