When Faith Fades

When Faith Fades August 2, 2016

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
 the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!  Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore, “They shall not enter my rest.”
– Psalm 95, NRSV

I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. Growing up my identification with Catholicism, really Christianity in general, was largely nominal. Like lots of kids my parents made me go to Mass with them every week, which was fine except that when I asked why we went to church they said because —  parent-slang for “drop it kid.”

So I did, I dropped it. I went to church not knowing what it meant or why I should want to be there. And what I noticed over time is that it didn’t seem like anyone else knew either. I wanted to know why people came to worship week after week when the church seemed bored with their own story.

Boredom was officially the status quo of my spiritual life until I was around thirteen years old. Things began to change for me the summer after seventh grade, when my best friend invited me to her Methodist youth group. At first I said “no,” but eventually changed my mind when I heard we would be playing laser tag. Once they successfully reined me in with free pizza and cute protestant boys, I met Jesus. But it was a Jesus I never heard of, a counter cultural Jesus who said all sorts odd things; things like, “love your enemies” and “do good to those who hate you.” Everything he taught and lived contradicted all of my natural impulses. At same time, something inside me knew this difficult way of living and loving was how things were supposed to be. I can’t give you the date or time of my first intimate encounter with God, but I can remember how it felt in the beginning.

One memorable moment from those first years occurred — of all place— at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. You see, every year both Disney and Universal host an all night extravaganza for Christian youth groups, complete with motivational speakers and Christian rock bands. One night, coming out of a David Crowder concert, I was so jazzed on the Holy Spirit I ran out of the stadium screaming, “I am a Christian!” at the top of my lungs. In retrospect this is slightly embarrassing, but at the time it felt liberating and subversive.

See I had that really annoying thing we cynical Christians call the “zeal of the convert.” It’s the phenomenon where one is filled with such joy and wonder by a new found appreciation for God  they just can’t help but rave about it to anyone who will listen. My parent’s generation called these folks, “Jesus Freaks,” and it is universally known that they are the worst. 

If you read the scripture above closely you might have picked up on some of that new-convert-zeal in the opening lines of Psalm 95. As a reminder, the Psalms are a collection of songs and prayers used by the Israelites in worship. In verses 4 and 5 the author marvels over God’s role as the creator and sustainer of everything, including us, and eagerly invites —or insists— that we join their fervent worship. They want the whole congregation up on their feet, singing and energized. Sound familiar? It’s that same awestruck praise that just seems to erupt from the newly faithful.

However, if you keep reading there is a noticeable shift in tone. What was jubilant praise in verses 1-5, becomes a solemn warning in verses 8-11. In verse 8, God, or someone speaking on behalf of God, becomes the narrator and warns the people not to harden their hearts as their ancestors did in the wilderness. The God character laments how the Israelites mistrusted the Lord even after they experienced God’s mercy and redemption first hand. God actually says that for forty years He loathed those whose “hearts went astray.”[1] This Psalm, which started off as an exuberant call to worship, ends with a sense of unresolved hostility. It literally goes from “O come, let us sing to the Lord!” to “They shall not enter my rest.”[2]

If you are like me, you want to know why this psalm takes such a dramatic turn. Well, I found one explanation in the footnotes of my NRSV study bible, which says “In the very midst of Israel’s worship, it seems, prophets would occasionally interrupt the proceedings and call the people to repentance and amendment of life.”[3] Can you imagine? Mid-worship some dude bursts in and derails the whole service!

Prophets, am I right?

There’s only one problem with the prophets accusations: according to the first verses of the psalm these folks are faithfully worshipping God, their hearts do appear to be in the right place. Which means this interrupting prophet can’t be questioning their faith, but rather, must be warning them that it won’t always be this way, that faith will not always come naturally or easily.

As it turns out, the specific mistakes the prophet mentions — taken from chapter 17 of Exodus— seem to support this theory.  To give you some context, chapter 17 comes directly after God delivers the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and then miraculously feeds them with bread from heaven. For a while things seem to be going pretty well — that is until the people become desperate for water and sarcastically complain that God has led them into the wilderness just to let them die of thirst. Given what they’ve already been through you’d think these former slaves would have faith that God is on their side, but they continue to doubt. So, at God’s command, Moses strikes a rock and water springs forth, saving the Israelites yet again. For the prophet failing to trust in God’s eternal faithfulness is the definition of what it means to have a hard heart, a heart that has gone astray.

After something extraordinary like the Exodus it’s hard to believe that anything could cause to doubt, yet we too are transformed by the living God only to realize in time the assumptions and habits that once sustained our faith no longer hold us.

Lauren Winner, author and professor at Duke Divinity School, describes this phenomenon perfectly in her book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. She writes:

“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches… since baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained… Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.”[4]

Those of us who’ve been in the church for years know exactly what Lauren is talking about; sooner or later, the novelty of faith wears off, and when it does we end up spending most of our time trying to remember what brought us here in the first place?

The question this psalm raises without attempting to answer is: how do we avoid becoming hard hearted? What can you and I do when, as Lauren puts it, our “faith is riddled with doubt”?

Well, have no fear, after much reflection and prayer this week I have discovered a possible solution — namely deception. Pretense. Act like a faithful Christian and in time you will become a little bit more faithful. I always thought it was the other way around — that beliefs dictate actions. Like if you could just believe hard enough eventually you’d become Mother Theresa, but as it turns out, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Cognitive Behavioral Psychology has proven the effectiveness of what we might call, “fake it ’til you make it.” Psychologists found this approach works even in conjunction with the smallest behaviors. For instance, when you force your face into a smile you will find that in a short amount of time you feel a little bit happier. When I heard about this a few years ago I tried it, and I can tell you from personal experience that it does elevate your mood… and thoroughly creep out the person sitting across from you on the metro – be wise about where you try this.

Of course, religious people have known this for centuries. I mean what are spiritual disciplines if not an exercise in ‘faking it ’til you make it’? They’re called disciplines for a reason — you have to bunker down and do them even when you’re not feeling particularly spiritual.

In the Wesleyan tradition spiritual disciplines are considered a means of grace; they are rituals we enact because God promises to meet us in them whether or not we are aware of it. As the author of the Message Bible, Eugene Peterson, likes to say, “The spiritual disciplines haven’t been tried and found wanting, they have been tried and found difficult.”

This perspective changes how many of us might see static rituals like those of the Catholic Mass. Maybe the members of my old church weren’t mindless drones, maybe they were faithful people trying to connect with God the only way they knew how.

Faith doesn’t always look like being “on fire for Christ.” Sometimes it looks like praying at the end of a long day, in spite of the fact that you’ve been doing it for months and still feel like God isn’t listening.

Now, I’m not saying we have to pretend to have it all together in order to recapture a meaningful relationship with God. Personally, I believe naming our ambivalence is essential to a robust spirituality and that it works harmoniously with focused discipline. A friend of mine who is seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church, recently said in a sermon:

“I want to serve a church where it’s OK to talk about the moments of tension, doubt, and struggle. I want to serve a church where we show up anyway, because most of the time, showing up is the most important part.”

The funny thing is we get this when it comes to relationships. If you’ve been in any sort of long-term relationship you know that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a commitment to showing up. So whether it comes to a relationship or a spiritual practice, showing up may seem like the bare minimum, but in fact the act of showing up anyway — enacting a faith that may still elude us — can still make all the difference.

Let me illustrate this for you: In the Jewish tradition there is a collection of ancient stories about a guy named “Naach Song.” Naach Song represents the every day person, so when you read stories about him you can insert yourself in his place. My favorite story from this collection uses Naach Song to explore how far we sometimes have to go to change the path we are on, which goes like this:

Moses, fleeing Egypt with his followers, arrives at the banks of the Red Sea. In a delicious moment of over acting he extends his arms to part the sea, but nothing happens.His followers start to panic: “Quickly Moses! The Egyptians will slaughter us!” At that moment Moses’ disciple Naach Song charges towards the water. The water rises first to his knees, then to his waist, then neck, and just before it reaches his nostrils the sea parts.

The moral of the story?

Sometimes for miracles happen, you just have to dive in.

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[1] Psalm 95:11a, NRSV

[2] Psalm 95:11, NRSV

[3] Craven & Harrelson, p.840

[4] Lauren Winner, Still (xiv)

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