I think I've always believed in God. To be sure, over the years I've doubted His existence and challenged him to prove himself a time or two. But from the earliest days of my childhood, when "going to church" was one of my weekly chores, I think I've always believed something named God was out there. He was out there somewhere exercising some sort of control over me. I couldn't see him or even feel him, really, but I was always led to believe he was all up in my business.
My parents led me to believe He was in my business. So did the priests. Other people who had God all up in their business, they led me to believe that as well.
I carried that with me. Everywhere I went, every day, I was at least a little bit concerned about what this God who was all up in my business was thinking about the business this me was up to in life.
To be honest, for me, that came with a lot of fear. Because to be really open, the business I was up to for a big chunk of my life was business not many people were proud of. I don't blame them for that, because no one could have been less proud of me than me. I spent a lot of those days wondering, if a God I was told created me to be someone he could be proud of, and I was not someone worthy of that, just what was this God I believed in planning to do about that?
Was this the day he'd get my attention? Would today be the day I'd pay the price for being a creature created to be lovable but never managed to live up to that possibility? When these become the questions that shape your belief in God, belief quickly becomes paranoia. Belief becomes something that upends your life, not something that sustains it or brings meaning to it.
A few years into this paranoia, when everyone around me knew I had hit rock bottom, but I was still bouncing around trying to make a trampoline out of it, I went to work for a carpenter. He built large houses; I hauled large loads of lumber and shingles around on my back all day to make building houses a little easier. That carpenter, he was always smiling. He was possibly the biggest smiler I had ever met. I assumed it was because I was carrying dry wall and he wasn't. Turns out there was more to it than that.
You see, I wasn't fond of how happy he was. Most days I showed up to work hung over and broke, which made grunt work miserable work. I'm not sure misery loves company, but it despises being within a thousand miles of joy. One day there were a few of us sitting against the two by fours of an unfinished wall inside the frame of a house we were working on, eating lunch. I was devouring a bag of chips and a 3 day old sandwich I'd bought at a carryout as I raced to make it to work on time that morning. I don't remember what the carpenter was eating, only that it must have been fresher than my lunch, because he joked and laughed while he ate.
That was the day I couldn't take it any more.
So I asked him a question that would change my life. I know today I had family and friends who had been praying I would ask this question, or that I would one day cross paths with its answer. There's no question the God I'd grown paranoid of was now gladly driving me right up to the door of this answer. I could almost feel him physically dragging the question from my mouth, much like my parents used to drag me to church. I suppose it was his way of saying you're not done hearing what I have to say.
So I asked the carpenter, not really intending that he bear the brunt of my frustration with God, but he was after all the ever present happy one in the midst of my ever present misery. I asked him - why are you always so happy?
For a question so presented from the overflowing complications and confusion in my own life, his answer flowed from a mysterious place of simplicity and calm. He said, "My happiness comes from my relationship with God."
That reply itself, right then and there, seemed like a joke. I respected the carpenter enough to hold my laughter in, but my insides couldn't have been more boisterous if they were sitting in the audience of a comedy club. I knew people who were pretty caught up in their bibles. They loved quoting verses to me like that would somehow help me absorb some meaning. But I'd never heard anyone talk about a relationship with God. Believe me, that sounded crazier than anything I'd ever heard out of the thumpiest of bible thumpers. Relationships were between husbands and wives, significant others and family and friends. Not between real live people and an invisible creator of lovable people gone wrong.
In the days ahead, try as I might, I had a hard time shaking his claim. It wouldn't disappear as fast as some of the scriptures I'd heard and since forgotten. I became obsessed with finding a more logical reason for his persistent joy. I thought it was a possible result of his sobriety, but I'd met a lot of grumpy sober people. Over the weeks and months ahead, I began to ask him a little more about this relationship he had. Interrogate might be more appropriate. As he described it to me, I came to realize that relationship was as real to him as any other in his life, and I had witnessed firsthand how much he loved his wife and kids. To him, his relationship with God was more powerful than all others combined.
Today I know it was no accident I crossed paths with the carpenter at the most desperate time of my life, because suddenly I wanted some of what he had.
And today I have it.
You know, in the darkest of my times, even though I believed God was out to get me, I always believed everything would somehow work out in the end. That was at the heart of my belief in God. But that came with a problem - likely my biggest problem - my life was always about hoping my misery would one day have meaning, that it was leading to some sort of ending that made sense to me, even if it wasn't scripted to be a happy ending. My life was about hoping for a miracle in the end, and not about experiencing meaning in the here and now.
I drove 11 hours yesterday. I thought a lot about my belief in God. And I realized I no longer believe in God. I realized I have faith in him. I realized, like that carpenter, I have a relationship with God.
I know for some that sounds as humorous and maybe uncomfortable to you as it sounded to me the first time I heard that carpenter reference it. I get it. Totally. But driving home yesterday, I began to understand the magnitude of that shift from belief to faith.
Listening to hours of news conversations yesterday about our current Coronavirus pandemic, it would have been easy to grow fearful again. To grow paranoid about a God out to get me. To ask out loud, "so finally, is this the day you've come to make me pay for it all? Oh, I knew you hadn't forgotten, God - I knew by gones weren't as by gones as you'd led me to believe."
It would have been easy to go there. But I didn't.
Yesterday, in the midst of a temptation to be fearful and anxious, I felt peace. I found myself saying, unexpectedly really, my happiness comes from my relationship with God.
Yesterday, driving home, I realized believing in God meant I believed when all else failed in my life, God would be there. Today, I know faith is something completely different than belief. Upside down even. Today, I know everything will fail in my life if it doesn't start with God, and knowing he created me to lovingly walk beside me in times when no one else really knows how to walk that walk.
I used to believe that if my whole world crumbled, at least there would still be God somewhere out there. Today, because of my relationship with God, because I have felt him pull me from the most challenging of times and into his arms - today - I know that if my whole world crumbles and all I have left is God - I am in the safest and most loved place I could ever dream of being.
My favorite scripture is 1 Peter 3:15.
I heard a pastor say yesterday that "unprecedented times provide unprecedented opportunities." For anyone who shares a story like mine, this is our unprecedented opportunity. Many people feel helpless and hopeless. Maybe they believe there's a God or something out there, and they are simply hoping in the end he'll salvage something of us that looks and feels familiar when this crisis ends. But if you believe like me, then you and me, we have an obligation to offer the hope and comfort and compassion we have within us, all fueled by a faith that says we don't have to wait until it's all over to show the world what God has been up to. Because believe me, believers and non-believers alike are wondering what someone is up to.
We have an opportunity to show the world our God isn't about a future reward or punishment, but about taking hands and carrying burdens through the here and now. And especially when a here and now looks more daunting than most of us have ever experienced.
I'm grateful. I used to believe in something that always felt like it was trying to upend my life.
Today, in a time when life could feel more upended than ever, I have a relationship with a God insistent on sustaining life, adding meaning to it, not upending it. I once lacked a peace in my life because I couldn't understand what this God was up to - why he was out to get me. Today, in the most challenging of times, I have a peace I can't begin to understand. I don't know why a God who should be out to get me is right beside me, saying we've got this.
I have no idea how I know if the whole world crumbles tomorrow, that peace will still be there. I can't explain it. It's a peace that passes all understanding. But I do know it. Maybe that's the difference between believing in God and having a relationship with him.
I'm grateful for all the people who instilled a belief in me. And for all the people who shaped that belief into faith. I'm grateful for an inexplicable peace in an inexplicably hard time. I pray that the God of hope holds you and and keeps you all in the days ahead.