"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