"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Friday, May 18, 2012

Letter to a Student

Dear Eve (not her real name)

I hope and pray that you are feeling better today. I find it ironic that of all people, you should chose to confide in me, because in many ways I too have been going through discouragement with the church and with "Christianity". I know it may sound cliché to say this, but you (we) are far from alone in these feelings. Statistics show that for many, disappointment has become the new normal. That is why one of the fastest growing segments of the population is called the "nones", named after the box people check which asks: Which religion or denomination do you affiliate with? None. A colleague shared with me that they too were suffering from depression and finally went to a doctor, admitted it was depression and had to go through different meds until they found one which "worked wonders". The person told me that the med has "literally saved my life." I'll leave you to ponder the implications of such a statement.

As I told you yesterday, I too have been under significant disappointments and stresses. It broke down my health. I had a cough for months (I'm finally a bit better), I had headaches for days on end (when I have rarely had headaches in my life), and found it hard to focus, to remember, to be "present" for things. I would be exhausted but couldn't sleep. I would joke but could not laugh. I wouldn't speak for days. I had to assure my wife that it had nothing to do with her, and indeed she was one of the few bright spots in my life. For me, part of the issue is the way I'm made up. All my life I have tended to internalize, to be pained by the insanity that goes on in the world. In the Christian world I lamented especially what for years I have called a gospel of vertical reconciliation (reconciling people to God) without the horizontal (people to each other), when horizontal reconciliation is the only religion the world can see. 

I have been helped by trying to focus on what positives I can, and by recalling the gratitude of students over the years in personal and written comments that I am doing something good, however small, to push against the tsunami of human selfishness and idiocy that at times seems to overwhelm all. In those moments, and in order to avoid being captivated to those moments, I take comfort in the simple teachings of Jesus, and in the little rays of light in the form normal kindnesses by ordinary people (non-Christian as much as Christian). I realize that I am learning some of the lessons that I have taught students through the years, and it allows me to exercise some patience, even as God has been immeasurably patient with me.

Faith is never more real than when we finally realize that we have nothing left. Nor can we get it from others. Indeed, borrowing it from (depending on the faith of, or lamenting the lack of it in) others only delays the journey we all must take. When you don't know whether to turn right or left in the serious matters. The tsunami comes and no miracle turns it away. People drown. The good die with the evil. When it rains it pours. The situation seems unbearable. It doesn't change. It doesn't change. Nothing comes to the rescue. In such situations, I don't believe that God holds it against us when we cry, "Where are you? If 85% of Americans say they're Christian, then how do you explain THIS? How come the greatest hurts I endure seem to come from Christians? Etc."

However, after all the questions and frustrations with God, a remarkable thing is when non-belief is no longer an option. You may be furious at God, but you do not, not believe in him. We may not want to believe. We angrily tell God so. We want to punish God for his apparent silence and deficiencies. Descartes once proved his existence by sheer reason alone: "I think, therefore, I am." Something similar could be said of us. We yell at God, therefore, he is. Non-belief is no longer an option.

Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally you may be utterly depleted and dejected. There is no earthly reason to believe. You're on the last mile of a marathon and your body is screaming, I'm done; stop or I'll kill you. The only thing that will take you over the finish line is sheer will supported by something I can only describe as a foundation, something in your past that is real throughout the surreal. A teaching, an act of kindness that summarizes all that is godly and good. The memory of paradigmatic expression of the law of love. God? Is it God? Was he there after all? Maybe we can't even name or describe it. But somehow it tells you not to be imprisoned by any one one moment of life in this world (bad or good for that matter). It tells you to take the longer view, to chose to hold to what good there is wherever you can find it. Because while at the current moment the good may seem like platinum specks on a mountain of dung, the good is now and always will be better and more treasured than the dung. Because if it is anything like good, then God was and is there. That too we chose to believe, with that something under us supporting us.

Call it the revenge of faith. Call it fake it till you make it. Believe till you become. I don't have answers any more about why religions so often fail to make people good. Well I do, but worrying about it has never brought me peace. But, like the disciples told Jesus, "Where else can we go. You have the words of life." (John 6:67-69)

Maybe you (and me) are in some ways at the beginning of our faith, or reviving it. We finally admit that we have nowhere else to go. We stop striving over things we cannot control, over answers that even if we had them, would not make us better (and would in all probability overwhelm us with the weight that only Christ can bear), we stop being imprisoned by the moment, by our anger, by the failure of others, by ourselves. We just believe -- in the face of everything that makes the option of faith seem ridiculous, and it is -- we just believe that Christ has the words of life. Like a child who trusts without question a loving parent who would do anything, even give her life, for their child, we find that childlike place of trust in Christ. And the tears come. But this time, not because we've been wounded by those who claim to know the divine quintessence of mercy and love, not because they've broken our heart. But because we've been healed by the divine quintessence of mercy and love. Because our heart is broken, but only because it is so full it cannot contain the beauty, and it overflows, the beauty. And the tears come, and it is sweet. It is so sweet.

Ruben Rivera


Debbie said...

My friend, I just wrote you an Epistle in an email. This post ... wow. I related to this statement ... "Faith is never more real than when we finally realize that we have nothing left. Nor can we get it from others."

Ruben, sometimes in my own struggle I have simply "let go". I just stopped questioning, struggling, trying to find meaning. Not given up, mind you ... just let go. Sometimes we need to do just that and BE with our questions and our suffering, because that is where God has placed us, even though to us it may feel like an abandonment, it is always when we feel that alone, that forsaken, that He really is most with us. I can only say that because I've been there and when I have come out of the abyss, I know, without a doubt, that HE was with me all along. Praying for you and your student ... as I said in my email "this too shall pass."

Ruben Rivera said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. My dear friend.

Anonymous said...

Ruben,Buts qui ne peuvent ĂȘtre atteints que si on a le courage de garder le cap.


WHAT does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph--
"Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one." Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied. But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening when it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, hapily
Floats through a window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale;
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unanswering to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me. Beauty is there
Edward Thomas

wendy said...

Very lovely post.....
I would be lost.....and heartsick...without my faith
Through ALLLL the crisis' and angry moments, I KNOW HE is there for me. If I were to ever let go of that.....THEN I let go of everything.
and there would be nothing.

SizzleandZoom said...

Beautiful thoughtful post. It's as natural to me as breathing-my faith.

lisa Moran, Bilancia Designs said...

Something told me to come by your blog tonight. I was under the impression you were taking time off due to a very hectic schedule....(something we both can relate to).
I was very (happily!) surprised to see this post and as I started to read I knew why I was meant to come here this evening. Your words are both comforting and profound...
I've always had traditional, religious beliefs. I was raised 'strict' Catholic, with nuns and monsignoirs in my family...however, a person's title does not authenticate faith.
Belief in spirituality does not mean to me what it once did growing up. It was regarded as only a religious 'experience' , rather than the human experience...which struggles with how our lives battle for inner peace...for some, daily.
There will always be the pursuit of happiness through love, compassion and far beyond a purely materialistic view of the world.
"Why are we here"?
"We just believe", as you said. "Like a child who trusts without question...."
Ruben, you never cease to amaze me with your brilliant, profound, God-given, literary gifts.
You, my friend, are a blessing.

Angelsdoor * Penny said...

Dear Ruben
What a touching post.. We would all be lost I believe without faith.. You have a gentle soul, one that reaches out to everyone.
Bless you dear friend.

Sonja said...

Hi Ruben:

I just hopped over here from Anita's post today. My friend, this is one of the most incredible posts I've read in a long long time...

The heart of what you have said is point on! And your words have come through many many experiences that have brought disappointment. I think every believer has those, some are both deep and long lasting. When we see who God is and the promises he has made, we are also painfully aware of the lack of those who live with different lives because of his grace.

I just loved your ending, as it is more about a new beginning, as we come to an end of some of the hopes and dreams of what we thought christianity should be like, we still come face to face with the author and finisher of our faith. You have done that here in an amazing group of thoughts...

when all is said and done, and our futile rants and raves leave us exhausted... there is still Jesus, there has always been Jesus, and because of the cross, we pick ourselves up and continue the journey, perhaps wiser and more free than ever before.

Good going Ruben... just keep plugging... not one step is unknown to God.

Our thoughts are not his thoughts and his ways are not our ways... that old 'through a glass darkly' is real. We are not meant to see it all, but the knowledge that he does is everything.



Marie said...

Beautiful, Ruben.

Thank you,

Khairul Islam said...

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Palomasea said...


How wonderful to see your message this morning...thank you!
May life artists and poets like you and Anita continue to light our path...

Miss your posts! ;)
Hope to see you Sunday...
- Irina