Saturday, April 2, 2011

"We Believe," O God. "Help our Unbelief."

Our small group at Salem is journeying together these days with Paula D'arcy, a therapist, and Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and theologian, through an audio series of lectures on "A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life." In five chapters where each of them speaks for a half hour, we are seeing ourselves and our lives pictured before us.

Life of necessity, they hold, has two halves--each with its importance. The first has to do with all that occupies our minds and wills when young--the passion to acquire, to establish a name for ourselves, to claim our identity. It cannot be avoided and ought not be diminished in importance. The second half begins somewhere in our lives when first half things fail us, when for want of a better word, our pride in ourselves and the patterns we have established to satisfy ourselves are broken and we are reduced to wondering what's next for us. Loss of a job, failures in marriage, family tensions, threatening illnesses--all these and many more that shatter our self-confidence--trigger us into the second half of life. And in the second half of life questions of meaning, purpose, and even survival begin to shatter our faith in ourselves and even sometimes in God--who seems somehow distant, far from who we thought he was and want him to be.

Though it may seem, as our teachers affirm, that first half patterns are upbeat and second half fractures are downers, it is not really so. No truly spiritual life can be experienced apart from either, and in their power to confront us second half queries and struggles are richer with promise--if faced and dealt with--than patterns of life established by us in the first.

We were stopped short recently, part-way through the series, by a statement repeated several times in our hearing by both lecturers that "everything is gift." Could that be true, we wondered? Some of us were--and are-- struggling with major health issues. Others are facing crises in the workplace and tensions with children. Can such be seen as gifts in the same way as the joys we experienced of love, marriage, children, and our vocations in earlier days?

Though still struggling to believe that, we are being encouraged to think so. True spirituality is not something we can generate in ourselves. It's something only God's loved ones know--gifted to us by him on the other side of coming to the end of ourselves. No one wants to be broken, of course. Yet why is it that our yearnings for the Spirit, for God's presence in our lives, are if anything being heightened now by the trials through which we are passing?

The picture above, on my study wall, grasps for me the whole of it. Below are the intricate patterns we have created for ourselves, cemented together by habit over time--all in the first half of life. Just above them are swirling seas where we now find ourselves. Over both of them is God's eternal sky--there all the time, glowing with the warmth of his sun. And in between is a dove coming back to the storm tossed vessels of our lives with an olive branch suggesting a peace and solid ground somewhere in life's storms and the promise of God--no matter what--of his continuing presence and blessing.

The patterned tables of life's first half in our group are now being broken in ways we cannot fully understand--much less piece together. Yet in our admitted brokenness is beginning to emerge a deeper understanding of Scripture's promise that "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench' (Isaiah 42:3). And though true faith in God still wavers in us at times, wanting life our own way, we are being sensitized by God to share with and pray for each other in ways that are surely helping our unbelief.