Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Living as if

When I was first ordained I didn’t feel very much like a pastor. I used to put on my clerical collar and practice my sermons in front of the mirror to convince myself. Sometimes it worked, but often on Sunday mornings I felt like a fraud. The fact that I had no female role models at the time didn’t help, but it was more than that. I had to figure out how to fill a role for other people, a role that they certainly needed me to fill, while being authentic to myself in the process. Of course, when I was twenty-something years old, I wasn’t all that comfortable in my own skin, much less filling the role of a pastor. Nonetheless, I had a congregation to serve, so I couldn’t wait until I got my act together. I had to fumble my way through it from day-to-day and act as if I were a pastor. It seemed to be easier to convince other people than it was to convince myself. As the years have passed, I've settled into the role by wearing it, much like breaking in a pair of shoes, and it's become comfortable for me. I have a better sense of myself and a better sense of how Nancy does pastor. After 34 years, although there are still times when I feel like a fraud, most days I am at peace with Pastor Nancy. I arrived at this place by living as if I were a pastor even when I didn't feel like one, and eventually, I became one.

And then I’ll have a conversation with a church member and they’ll confess to me that they don’t know what they believe anymore. They don’t know if they believe in heaven. They don’t know if they believe in a bodily resurrection. They don’t know if they can believe God really cares. Sometimes they don’t know if they can believe in a God at all. And often this crisis of faith will keep them away from the church. They feel like a hypocrite being with other people who seem to believe all the stuff they struggle with. They feel like a fraud, like they’re pretending to be someone they aren’t. And I think to myself, yeah, I know the feeling. I’ve heard it so often from so many people that I suspect it could be the norm for people of faith. From time to time, or maybe even all the time, we have trouble believing the stuff we think we should be believing if we’re going to consider ourselves Christians. And I also suspect that, as a result, a lot of people attend weekly worship under a heavy cloud of guilt because they feel like a fraud. There are also those who don’t want to put themselves through that, so they don’t go at all.
What I want to say to them is that the Church is filled with people just like them. They’re not alone. And then I want to talk to them about the difference between belief and faith. We tend to put way too much emphasis on belief in the church. John 3:16 hasn’t helped. It makes it sound like believing is the way to salvation. But isn’t that just another twist on works righteousness, on earning our own salvation? If believing were the goal, then we would have to determine believing what exactly? Believing how much? The fact is, beliefs come and go and, if you're trusting in what you believe, you’re in for a bumpy ride. If you’re going to trust in something, make sure it’s trustworthy. For me, that’s the grace of God. Even when I don’t know what I believe or I don’t seem to believe anything at all, I trust that the grace of God won’t let me down. In fact, even when I don’t trust in the grace of God, I trust that the grace of God won’t let me down. (If you can follow that line of reasoning.)

Faith isn’t believing stuff that is so far-fetched no one in their right mind could possibly buy it. It’s not certainty. It’s not having a theological explanation for all the hard questions. Faith is trusting in a relationship that transcends all that foolishness. And I’ve come to the conclusion that when we’re living into the faith we long to have, when we’re living as if it were true, we’re not frauds at all. That’s when we’re authentically living in relationship with God.
On a Sunday morning, the pews in my church are filled with people who are living as if. They may not always believe the words we speak, but they speak them as if they did. They may not be convinced that Jesus is really present in the bread and wine, but they receive it as if he were. They may not always accept the truth of the words they sing, but they sing them as if they did. Because that’s the best they can do. It’s all too much to really take it in without reservations, without doubts, without questions. And so they live as if. And that’s enough.

I want to tell my dear friends who feel like a fraud being a part of a faith community that feeling like a fraud is part of what it means to be a part of a faith community. They are not alone in that. They are a part of a community that is filled with those who feel the same way they do. And the ones who don’t, either haven’t yet begun to think about it, or they’ve worked through it and landed on the other side. But that’s part of what it means to be a person of faith. And the beauty of being part of a faith community is that, from week to week, there are those who are going through a completely faithless time in their lives while there are those who are filled with strength, hopefulness, and joy in their relationship with God. And the way it works in community is that the ones who are strongly grounded in their connection with God can hang onto the ones whose faith is floating somewhere above the atmosphere and keep them from being sucked into a black hole. The roles may change. At any given time, those who once were strong in faith may become weak, but there are always some among us whose faith can hold the rest of us in a safe place. And that’s why, even when you’re feeling like a fraud at worship -- especially then, being part of a faith community is such a gift.

If you're feeling like a faithless fraud in church, don't leave us. Stay with us and live as if. Father Richard Rohr has said, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” And that’s the thing about living as if you were a person of faith. After a while you figure out what it really means to be a person of faith. And you discover that you've been one all along.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I get tears in my eyes every Christmas eve. I went to Jerusalem just last month and visited all the places Jesus walked throughout his life. I'm really trying to be a believer, but all I see are the tourist traps around every site trying to sell trinkets to the tourists. The River Jordan reminded me of Gatlinburg Tenn. Why is God in some peoples lives and not in others? I just can't get it and I want this in my life. Is it just another way to make money off the faithful?