...of starting seminary tomorrow (officially), there seems to be a lot weighing on my mind. I attended worship tonight at University Presbyterian for the first time in a church building/traditional setting in a really long time (camp has "Boat in" out-door services, and somehow I've been otherwise occupied every Sunday since I got back.) and it was a surprisingly emotional experience for me.
Somehow - maybe through my world travels, or discussions with many Midwestern, liberal Lutherans, or just my own growing interest in theology - in the last several months, my understanding of God has grown larger and larger and simultaneously, less and less personal. What was once an incredibly personal relationship has become a much more logically sound, defensible set of doctrines. These doctrines seemed to make sense of intense suffering, of the seemingly great disparity of "blessings" given someone like me and, say, the people in the Tanzanian village in which my friend Brie currently dwells as a Peace Corp Volunteer. How could an intensely personal and involved Creator God pick and choose some to bestow copious amounts of comfort and health upon, and others to orphan and fight hunger and illness? Rather than try to make sense of this, or embrace a strange sort of guilt for my own tremendous privilege, it was easier to remove God from the day-to-day altogether. God still exists as Creator, but not so much on the personal Friend type.
While I had not sorted all of these thoughts out theologically (they don't really sort out very well), I definitely moved away from any prayer that either praised or requested God's interaction in my daily life, or that of those around me. I carefully prayed only for Spiritual gifts (comfort, wisdom, discernment, etc.), as opposed to any physical health, or jobs/financial things, food for the hungry, or heaven-forbid a change in the weather. Operating upon the assumption that it was up to me to find a job, that health is inevitably going to fail, that providing food was up to those of us blessed to have more than enough, and that the weather was going to do whatever it pleased. Why would God interact with these mundane things of life, when God gave us the intellect and ability to deal with them, and also allowed death and destruction to occur in their time? Don't ask me what I thought Jesus' miracles were - just a fluke I suppose (like I said, there were still a lot of holes)...I was close to believing they were perhaps fabricated, certainly not a central part of his message!
Again, much of this was a reaction to the popular right-wing Christian argument that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment of an evil city, or the more extreme Charismatic belief that if we just pray "in the Spirit", God will take care of it (sickness, unemployment, birthing pains, you name it) - big "Genie in the Sky" style. But, if these things aren't true, as I cannot really believe that they are, then what in the heck IS true of God's interaction with the world? Why are people in pain, hungry, not healed when prayed for (heck, a lot of the time they die), or suicidally-depressed, if we have a God who does interact with the world?
Of course, these questions and shifting beliefs in due course changed much of my interaction with God. I stopped reading the Bible, because I couldn't reconcile it with these new theories, I struggled to pray with any honesty because I had to so carefully craft my prayers around Spiritual concerns alone, and I stopped encountering God in worship in the way I used to.
Then I landed at the Spiritual Formation week-long seminary class at Camp Casey with the 20+ seminarians I will be studying with for the next three years. Not realizing that all of the "shifting" I discuss above had been going on inside of me, I was shocked to hear all their personal testimonies about how personally, and often radically, God had worked in their lives. Their passion and personal view of God combined with intelligent working theologies could not be ignored, and I brokenly had to reevaluate my own beliefs. I found that without realizing, I was profoundly missing God in my life, even as I'd been thinking so much about God and God's world.
None of this has been solved for me. I'm not suddenly a charismatic healer who will pray for any injury that comes my way. However, I also have reaffirmed my belief that miracles DO happen, that God interacts with the world every day, most of the times in ways that are not visible. God holds a MUCH larger picture than I do, and I ultimately trust that though every single person who enters life on earth suffers pain, loss, and ultimately, death - without exception - they also nearly invariably experience joy, love, and some form of hope. And in my limited understanding, I can only hope to glimpse one puzzle piece at a time of a multi-billion piece puzzle, that God continues to put together. God's got the box, the end-of-the-project picture that none of us gets to see. We get clues, maybe, but nothing like the end. Heck, we can't even get our arms around infinity - we are simply stuck in this thing called time.
Too many of us, myself definitely included, presume that the puzzle-pieces we've seen make us experts on the Puzzler and the picture as whole. My friend Brie, the PCV I mentioned above, doesn't believe in God, and her village largely does. Their faith seems simple, and foolish, to her, I think much of the time. It probably would to me also. Yet, they've seen a much different part of the puzzle than I have. Maybe instead, I (and she) should learn from their faith and the ways in which they've seen God interact (and not interact) and attempt to broaden our view rather than change theirs.
Ok, this is a really long post, and most of you have probably stopped reading because I'm rambling and being theological, but all that to say that tonight, in worship, God's intensely personal, life-sustaining love grabbed a hold of me, reminding me of why I am in seminary, of why - at the end of the day - I keep coming back to a God who THANKFULLY is hugely bigger than me, or my very small and narrow brain, and placing my trust in that God's vision for a broken world in need. In the meantime, I will spend my life trying to see that picture a little more clearly, and acting accordingly.