I gave a talk in church today. For those of you who aren't familiar with the LDS church and it's blessed structure it's a church of volunteers. So every week random people give talks in Sacrament Meeting (the most important hour of our three hour block of meetings). I've been pretty lucky considering I've been in this ward* for a year and a half and this is the first time they've asked me to speak (I figured they'd never ask me to speak considering I sit in the hall and rarely make eye contact with anyone). While I typically don't mind talking in church, the topic they assigned me was a rough one: "finding faith in Christ". Ugh. Considering my seemingly endless spiral towards agnosticism, I didn't really think it was the best topic for me to speak on. But I couldn't exactly switch the subject and I committed to the assignment before I knew what the topic was. So I gave the talk, only instead of titling it "Finding Faith in Christ" I titled it "Losing Faith in Everything" (it's much catchier don't ya think?)
So, this is what I wanted to say:
"Faith...blah, blah, blah...things hoped for but not seen...blah, blah, blah...I had faith once, then shit hit the fan and things got real and you know what I can't say I have faith in much of anything right now. Humanity? We all suck. God? I'm not fully convinced he's not a sadist. Promised blessings? They only come to other people. I was taught my whole life to "do this" and "do that" and that it would all work out. Well you want to know what "work out" means? Heartbreak folks. It means heartbreak. And disappointment, and endless waiting for things that are never going to come. And you can read all of the guilt causing, shame provoking, conference talks on how to fix it, but it doesn't help. It doesn't work. I prayed. I searched the scriptures. I pondered. I yearned for answers. I begged for peace. And you know what? Nothing. And don't any of you throw any of that "after the trial of your faith", or "endurance", or "you have to believe", or "maybe this is caused by sin", or "God didn't leave you, you left God" stuff. And don't offer me any trite solutions. Because pain is pain and I feel what I feel. And I know I'm not the only one in this room who feels or has felt this way. But no one else seems to be willing to stand up and speak the reality."
I also would have said the word "whore" for shock value and then just stood there taking in the look on everyone's face. Then maybe, just maybe a revolution would start and we'd all start being real with one another...then it would expand and we could finally force the church to remove all of the tacky hymns from the hymnal.
But I didn't say that. I didn't come close to saying that. But I thought and felt that while I wrote what I actually said.
For those of you who are interested in what I really said, read away....but don't, and I mean DON'T post a comment about your dislike for C.S. Lewis, because I already got that from brother F'er after the meeting. He's a prick and I'll think you're one too if you say even a minor peep about my historical crush Mr. Lewis. So shut it.
"Ambushed isn’t the correct word but last Sunday as I was leaving the chapel I was approached by a member of the bishopric, who is also my home teacher. For the handful of you who know me, you know I make it a point to avoid interpersonal interaction while at church. But he’s my home teacher, and you know, if you don’t talk to your home teachers at church they will hunt you down and come to your house. So brother…approached me, and I was totally prepared for some basic home teacher interaction but instead I was ambushed and asked to speak today. Thrown off guard I made the tactical error of saying yes before asking about the topic. In the two seconds before he told me the topic I silently petitioned the universe to make him say endurance or church history. So when he said “Finding Faith in Christ” my heart fell and a rush of panic washed over me. As my Sunday School class can attest, the topic of faith generally reduces me to a puddle of tears and incompetence. See, I am not qualified to speak to anyone about “finding faith”. The only topic I’m currently qualified to speak about is “losing faith in everything”.
So I apologize to those who may feel uncomfortable for the next 10 minutes, and I speak to those who, like me, have lost faith. Those who question. Who don’t know if or what they believe. Who feel hopelessness, fear, panic and grief. Those who feel incompetent when they think about where they are and where they should be. Those who have experienced a life shattering loss, or a grave disappointment in unfulfilled hopes and wishes. Those who feel an immense sense of isolation living in a culture that rushes to the happy ending where faith is apparent, restored, and whole, where unbelief brings criticism, pity, incredulousness, and an onslaught of over simplified solutions. I speak to you.
Over the past week, as I have obsessed over what I was going to say today, I’ve continually returned to the concept of loss and the process of finding.
I am well acquainted with loss, academically, artistically, and professionally it is my topic of choice. Loss affects all of us. “When we think of loss we typically jump to death but as Elizabeth Bishop wrote in her poem “One Art” the art of losing isn’t hard to master…(We) lose something every day…lost keys, the hour badly spent, we forget names, et. Our lives are full of loses. Some losses are socially acknowledged and acceptable to discuss, such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, others are more ambiguous and not openly recognized or talked about. I would argue that a loss of faith falls into the latter category. The experience of losing faith is not something we talk about. We may discuss the process or impetus of losing faith, with broad strokes and antidotes, but we don’t discuss the often complicated and extremely painful experience of losing faith. And for anyone who has experienced it, you know it’s excruciating.
A loss of faith triggers many of the same grief reactions as other losses such as numbness, depression, denial, or anger. For me the most debilitating and paralyzing part of the experience of losing faith is the realization that the faith I had was not what I thought it was. To quote CS Lewis, “We were… promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told ‘Blessed are they that mourn’ and I accepted it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination…but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn’t for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people’s sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which ‘took these things into account’ was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labeled ‘Illness’, ‘Pain’, ‘Death’ and ‘Loneliness’. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.”
But, as I read, all hope is not lost. To those who feel the hopeless despair that accompanies a loss of faith, as I do, I want to share a quote by J. Reuben Clark,
“It is my hope and my belief that the Lord never permits the light of faith wholly to be extinguished in any human heart, however faint the light may glow. The Lord has provided that there shall still be there a spark which, with teaching, with the spirit of righteousness, with love, with tenderness, with example, with living the Gospel, shall brighten and glow again, however darkened the mind may have been.”
This quote reflects the promise found in Alma 32, that all it takes is a particle of faith. And as my Sunday School class insists, even I have a particle of faith. Even I have something to work with.
So, now that I’ve set the stage with an onslaught of self disclosure I will now move out of my area of expertise and on to the process of finding. As evidenced by the maddening experience of losing something as simple as car keys, finding something you have lost is rarely easy. It requires work, thought, and patience and is generally coupled with a healthy dose of frustration. The process of finding faith is the same. Alma 32 teaches us that in order for faith to increase it must be nurtured and tended. In a 1991 conference talk, Neal a Maxwell outlines four fundamentals in perfecting faith: serving, studying, praying, and worshiping. While a typical prescription for all spiritual ailments, those who have had a loss of faith may find the very thought of serving, studying, praying, and worshiping to be overwhelming, pointless, and of little value.
By virtue of the loss experience, it is hard to believe in methods that feel as though they have failed you in the past. And that is where the magic of my assigned topic comes into play: finding faith IN Christ. We don’t have to search for it, Christ has it. We can find faith IN Christ.
As a therapist I have the unique privilege of being with people in pain. I have worked with many whose emotional grievances are physically apparent. They sit slumped, weighed down by their burdens. Their eyes reflect pain, panic, and sadness. They come to me either hoping to find answers or at least a bit of relief. Sometimes the void, the wound, they so desperately want to be healed is so massive, so deep that they express total hopelessness and faithlessness that things can be better. That is when I tell them that there are no magic wands, that the therapeutic process is hard. And then I look them in the eyes and tell them that my job isn’t to give them answers, my job is to hold the hope they are not able to. Sometimes this is met with a slight sigh of relief and a silent thank you, other times it’s met with a glare and noverbalized challenge of “prove it”.
I imagine it is the same when it comes to finding faith IN Christ. When we have lost faith He holds it for us.
In the book of Matthew, the Savior invites, “come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
For those of us who have lost faith we can either find comfort and relief in this invitation, or turn away smugly with a glare and the challenge of “prove it”. The choice is ours, God nor Christ can force us to receive something we do not wish to have. I will not hypocritically state that this is as easy task. It is just as hard for me to say as it is for me to accept, for I do not easily follow, nor do I easily trust.
But for those who crave reprieve I share a quote taken from a 2004 conference talk given by Elder Hales said, “To my dear friend and all those whose souls are hungering for faith, I invite you “to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written.” Let their witness that the Savior gave His life for you sink deep into your heart. Seek a witness of the truth through the Holy Ghost in prayer, and then see your faith strengthened as you joyfully meet the challenges of this mortal life and prepare for eternal life.”
Hunger, seek, and accept that which has been offered.
I close with a quote by Neal A Maxwell, “Real faith…is required to endure this necessary but painful developmental process. As things unfold, sometimes in full view, let us be merciful with each other. We certainly do not criticize hospital patients amid intensive care for looking pale and preoccupied. Why then those recovering from surgery on their souls? No need for us to stare; those stitches will finally come out. And in this hospital, too, it is important for everyone to remember that the hospital chart is not the patient. Extending our mercy to someone need not wait upon our full understanding of their challenges! Empathy may not be appreciated or reciprocated, but empathy is never wasted.”
May we all be gentler, kinder, and more patient with ourselves and others as we travel through life. May losses of faith be met with kindness, patience, and understanding. And may we all seek to find faith IN Christ, to learn from him, to find rest to our souls, and to have our burdens made light.