Reflections by Jerry Webber

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Belief As a Lived Experience

Every person is a theologian. Everyone thinks about God. Even the thought that there is no divinity is way of considering ultimate things. The process of thinking God doesn’t exist, or thinking that God doesn’t matter, is one form of theology.

I know all that sounds like double-talk, but really it’s not. And there is more . . .

What we truly believe is not what we say we believe, or what we think we believe. No. Our actual belief is what shows up in our lives, in our daily experience, in the way our lives are ordered.

For example, numerous persons through the years have suggested that even many Christians – those who claim faith in God through Jesus Christ – are practical atheists. That is, while many of us claim allegiance to God through Jesus, we may also order our daily living as if God did not exist, or as if Christ did not matter, or as if God’s Spirit had abandoned the world. We would be offended to be called atheists, yet the day-by-day run of our lives is not touched by our faith in God.

What we believe about God also shows up in our practice of prayer.

For instance, entering into prayer with a posture of openness, in which we seek to stay open to the vast and mysterious work of God within us and in the world, invites a larger theology of God . . . a belief that God holds all things together. It invites me to trust that even though I cannot see the full picture from where I sit, God is directing the affairs of the world in a way that brings healing and redemption. It invites me to trust the hidden work of God’s Spirit, which most often takes place behind the “veil.” Contemplative prayer and meditation, therefore, are far from lazy or watered-down forms of prayer. Rather, they invite a fuller faith in God and less reliance on my own vision or abilities.

Other prayer forms also reveal our belief-systems. The Hebrew Psalms are packed with raw emotions and honest declarations about how the psalmist experiences life.

“Defend my cause, God,” they demand.

“Why have you abandoned me, Lord?” they inquire.

“Destroy my rivals,” they pray.

This is not the prettified, holy-sounding, “godly” language I was taught in the Church. In fact, I was instructed to pray prayers that were beautiful and lofty, that extolled God’s virtues – most often telling God what God surely already knew – with eloquence and an appropriate sense of wonder.

[Strangely enough, these were also the prayers that kept me far from prayer for decades. When I realized I could not pray those lofty, eloquent, holy-sounding prayers with any degree of honesty, I gave up on the whole business of praying.]

The Psalms of the Old Testament were literally a God-send for me. In them I found people praying real, raw prayers, not the cleaned up and sanitized version of prayer I had earlier been taught.

But it took me awhile to learn to pray honestly as depicted in psalms. My theology, what I believed about God, was that if I made one wrong move, said one “bad” word, made some flippant gesture God-ward, I would be punished. Had you asked me what I believed about God, I would have said that God loves me unconditionally. But my practice did not reflect that belief.

My actual experience was fear of God, afraid that I would somehow, in word or deed, wander beyond the limits of God’s love. I couldn’t be honest. I couldn’t say what I truly felt – unless, of course, what I felt was “pure” and “holy” and “upright,” and you can imagine that was a very small percentage of the time – because if I did, God would make me pay.

It actually took me years to learn to pray honestly. It happened bit by bit, baby steps forward, learning to actually trust that the cord with which God tethered me could not be severed, that there was nothing – absolutely no-thing – that could take me beyond God’s love and mercy. Only when secure in God, only when fully trusting that I was held without condition in God’s heart, could I pray honestly the reality of who I am and how I experience life.

What you and I truly believe always shows up in our actual lives . . . in our prayer, in our daily experience. What lives in our minds may be an expression of what we want to believe. Our practice of daily life demonstrates our actual belief.

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