Archive for February 13th, 2018

The Language of a Quiet Faith

amywink February 13th, 2018

“Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent.” Acts 18: 9

In 1987, I moved to College Station to enter graduate school at Texas A&M, where I would pursue and earn two graduate degrees over the next nine years. I was 22. It was a lengthy and continuous lesson in dogged persistence but I had a powerful inner drive to complete what often seemed a very distant and indefinable goal–one with very few benefits except, perhaps, a job teaching and writing at the end of it. But like writing a book or living a life, it is hard to think of an end goal as the whole purpose of the journey, especially when traveling through the branching streams of choice that may or may not appear along the way. Recently, I read a Twitter post that asked “Why didn’t they just call the Eagles in to carry Sam and Frodo to Mordor at the beginning?” as if efficiency should have been the entire point of the story that Tolkien wrote. The point, of course, is not only the end result, so much as the entire journey we take, what we learn along the way, how we live, and how we keep going, faithfully. I bought a t-shirt in graduate school that read “The Road to Enlightenment is Long and Difficult, so Bring Snacks and a Magazine.” It is also important to keep laughing.

I could have stopped, and I knew people who did. I understand and respect that decision completely, but I couldn’t stop and when I completed my PhD in 1996 (I was 31), I thought I had been too slow. Seriously. I was driven. What a nutcase.

My long experience at Texas A&M returned to me recently, the memories triggered partly by reconnecting with some people who had made a profound difference for me while I was there but even more so by the language I began to encounter in the workbook for my New Testament Disciple class, the language of Christianity. I had a visceral response that I did not quite understand. I was set on edge, suddenly wary, irritated. I had no such reaction to the Old Testament workbook. What I had loved reading, and often read privately throughout my life, seemed to be filtered now through a language I found alienating, a language that subtly pushed a specific kind of response to the Biblical readings, a language that separated me from the text I loved, from the faith I lived, language that said my experience was not the right sort of experience, that implied I’d better have the right kind or keep quiet. It was the code I had learned well at Texas A&M, where the conservative right prevailed and employed the language of faith as a weapon. Loudly. When someone asked if you had experienced the power of Jesus, they were ready to pick up a stone if you answered incorrectly. I understood the code. I knew what was being asked, and that coded language pushed hard against my quiet faith until I felt compelled to speak, to push back, to challenge what I had long remained silent about. I changed the language, reworking a particularly egregious section even before I was very wisely counseled to do so (thank you, wise counselor). I had an effective argument against the language used but more importantly, and less articulately, I could only say “This isn’t right. It’s just not right.” Rewriting it was the only way I could find peace.

I know I am more attuned to precise language than most people and I may be “overly sensitive” but precise language can be the difference between opening up to understanding or closing to it. What words mean and what they imply make a difference in how we understand. To think that precise language is insignificant to Biblical understanding is to miss the entire beauty of the Prologue of the Gospel of John, to miss the meaning of many parables, to stand like Thomas confused and asking “what road are you talking about?” when Jesus says “you know the way.” Perhaps that is why the Gospel of John speaks to me and why it confuses others. There are, however, three other Gospels that do well to reach as many readers who may seek to understand. There is not just one way to learn, nor is there just one way to experience “the power” of Jesus, nor is there one kind of power.

The conversion narrative has always taken precedence in the literature of spiritual autobiography. The showy conversion, like Paul’s, dramatizes an unmistakable change. There can be no mistake about the presence of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost–and that seems on purpose, those Apostles could not wonder about that meaning. Conversion narratives from the Middle Ages often turn on a terrible illness or crisis during which the speaker encounters the Divine and is forever changed. Even now, the drama of a changed life is more exciting, someone “coming to Jesus” from drugs, or alcohol or prison or, as we may often hope might occur, a wrongly held political opinion. We want the drama. We want the certainty of a fiery revelation, the certainty of “arriving” at the right place, something no one can miss, some thing that cannot be mistaken. Even so, many of those narratives end before the converted have a chance to find themselves asking “and now what?” It is the glorious wedding with no ideas on the marriage.

There are precious few narratives for those of us to whom God may speak quietly and continuously, offering peace and clarity when we most need it, without fireworks or flames, or getting knocked off our horses, for those of us who think we were born okay the first time, for those of us who take up our journey with God and our living faith, for those of us who are not lost to God but always in his Presence. And this is where I find myself now, thinking about my quiet faith, which I have become suddenly very public about because I feel compelled to speak. I am writing different answers in my Disciple workbook, challenging the code I learned to understand, subverting that which has kept me on the outside of “the church” because I am tired of the language that claims the faith for only one kind of Christian. I am tired of being told that my faith isn’t. I do not know if I am up for the task but when I found myself thinking “we don’t have enough good writing about faith. We don’t have enough good writers exploring this kind of quiet faith,” the answer that came into my head was “well, that would be you now, wouldn’t it?”