A small group of ladies at my church have been meeting once a week to read and discuss Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor. Every Thursday evening we hop on a zoom call and reflect upon God, and the role of light and darkness in our lives. Carolyn suggested we meet at her house for our final meeting together to eat dinner outside in the dark and discuss the last chapters. We were enthusiastic about the idea, and we circled the date on our calendars.
February in San Diego is considerably warmer than other places, but even so, I was nervous when the high was only 60 that day. By the time dinner came and the sun disappeared, it would be closer to 50.
So I came prepared.
I wore leggings under my jeans. I wore two sweaters and buttoned my peacoat up to the top. I wrapped a scarf around my neck and put my fingerless gloves in my pocket. (Upon further reflection, I’m not sure how I managed to survive the Michigan winters of my college days…)
I walked into Carolyn’s kitchen with a Tupperware box of homemade brownies. Three of the other women were already there, shedding their coats and setting the table… inside. Pastor Karla told me that it was officially too cold to eat outside so we were moving the meal inside where we could dim the lights.
I laughed and pulled off a few layers. It seemed that everyone else had come straight from work, wearing fancy clothes, makeup, and jewelry. A tinge of insecurity sparked through me as I realized I hadn’t bothered with makeup or going-out clothes. I said as much out loud and felt loved and reassured when they laughed along with me.
Always be prepared doesn’t always work
There are times when I’ve been regrettably under-prepared, and (fewer) times when I’ve been over-prepared. For most of life, there can be no preparation, no way to know how a situation will stretch you or what it will demand from you. This is true of many big life transitions, like going to college, or getting married, or moving far away, or starting a new job, or becoming an empty-nester.
This is especially true for walking through dark seasons—can anyone be prepared to handle the loss of a loved one, a scary diagnosis, an unexpected job layoff? It is often during these times when we discover what our faith is made of, when our beliefs about God are revealed.
I’m reminded of a story Jesus told in the gospel account of Matthew:
As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:4-8, NIV)
Later, when Jesus explains this parable to the disciples, he says the seed on the path is faith without understanding and is easily snatched away. The seed on the rocky ground is faith with no root that falls away in the face of trouble or persecution. The seed in the thorns is faith overshadowed by “worries of this life and deceitfulness of wealth.” And the seed that falls on good soil is faith with understanding. This kind of faith is fruitful.
Our faith will not only survive but will thrive when it is rooted in understanding. It might be shaken when faced with trouble or persecution—those dark times of loss and sorrow and suffering—but it will not topple, abandoned. Faith with understanding will not be choked away by everyday anxieties or the shiny and distracting pursuit of wealth.
It’s almost like Jesus is showing a spectrum, and on one end is faith without understanding which disappears almost immediately, and on the opposite end is faith rooted in understanding, which multiplies.
Cultivating a deeply rooted faith
The best way to be prepared for life’s troubles, persecutions, anxieties, and foolish distractions is therefore to develop and strengthen our understanding of our faith.
This is the work of theology.
Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, in their book “Who Needs Theology?” put it this way:
“[Theology] is simply faith seeking understanding.”
As they flesh out their definition, they clarify:
“Christian theology is reflecting on and articulating the God-centered life and beliefs that Christians share as followers of Jesus Christ, and it is done in order that God may be glorified in all Christians are and do.”
How do you seek understanding in your own journey of faith? Some of us were introduced to the soil of Christianity as young children, and some were not. All the same, as adults, the impetus is on us to develop our theology and deepen our understanding of the faith.
More than deciding whether or not to attend church, we must choose how we will orient our lives. Will we pursue an easy life, doing our best to avoid all pain and suffering? Will we pursue riches, success, and accolades? Or will we pursue God, resting in his presence, learning from his words, following the example of Jesus—a lifelong decision of knowing God intimately?
Every day, the choice is ours.
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