I recently told you about my resolution to do more than talk a good game about my faith. I remember a minister who taught a Bible study I once attended. He said that you have to be careful when you pray for faith. Sometimes, God will just give you more faith. Sometimes, however, he may put you in a situation which requires you to exercise your faith, thus growing that faith. And, sometimes, if you are really blessed, God will test you in a way that demonstrates to you just how much faith you already have. These are some scary possibilities but I am beginning to realize that to grow faith, one must actually step out in faith. Talking is not enough. Action and practice are necessary. To bulk up one’s faith, one must exercise the faith muscles.
A few months ago, I led an Alpha course at my church. This was the fourth Alpha course I have helped lead. Alpha is a program made up of eleven weekly evening sessions, plus a day retreat. The original purpose of the course was to provide a place for people who would not identify themselves as churchgoers or Christians to grapple with the big questions of life, faith, purpose, and God. However, we find that the course has dramatic benefits for people at any point on their spiritual travels. Each evening begins with a dinner, followed by a video presentation on some aspect of Christianity. Then, the guests break into small discussion groups to talk about their perspectives, experiences, questions, doubts, fears, observations, and anything else they wish to say. Coordinating the program is a rewarding, enriching, and soul-feeding experience for me. In the past, it has also been exhausting and stressful for me.
At the beginning of this Alpha course, my life coach challenged me. He advised that I prepare no more than half as much as I would have in the past. He encouraged me to trust the Holy Spirit, trust my own competence, and trust the qualities that God created in me. Faith in God and faith in myself was a radically different strategy than my previous modus operandi of trying to anticipate and guard against any possible (or, for that matter, impossible!) uncomfortable eventuality. I always said that we only opened the door and turned on the lights during the Alpha course. God was the one who did all the work. Despite what I said and despite my intellectual understanding that it was true, I could not seem to refrain from doing, doing, doing in any spare moment between sessions to try to cover all my bases. I felt terrified at the very notion of dialing back on preparation… but also strangely liberated. I decided to try it. Why not? I convinced myself that it wasn’t brain surgery, and no one was going to die if something uncomfortable happened. In fact, someone might grow.
Someone did grow. Me.
I had FUN during this Alpha course. I not only said I was going to let the Holy Spirit take the reins. I actually did it. The burden was much lighter. In the past, I had to beg and plead to get people to provide meals. I usually ended up providing several myself. This time, I had a surplus of people agreeing to help with the food. One of my precious sisters by selection who attended the course in the past and enjoyed it volunteered to be my production partner. This reduced the work, the worry, and the responsibility of the program by way more than half. I didn’t worry about things going wrong. Nothing really went wrong. When something went a little bit off center, I relied on help from the team and even the guests to get us back on track. I also relied on my own personality and sense of humor to offset any awkwardness. I figured out that every offering, no matter how imperfect, is a priceless gift to God. We had the largest number of guests we have ever had on an Alpha course and our guests had the highest level of consistent attendance. The guest feedback was stellar.
God has been working on me, clearly. Let me tell you a story. When I first agreed to help with Alpha (without ever having attended a course, by the way), I did so because I did a lot of group facilitation work in my career. I was not necessarily thinking about roles that involved cooking, serving meals, and providing a cozy, hospitable environment. I had never even hosted a party in my life. I grew up in a family that did not entertain. I eat like a four-year-old, so my cooking repertoire is extremely limited. I am as introverted as one can get on the Myers-Briggs scale. Somehow, I wandered into the path of a runaway volunteer recruiter and ended up being the Alpha hospitality princess. I stepped out in faith. I, who had never thrown a party in her life, was holding dinner parties for fifty every week. And nothing tragic happened.
During that first Alpha program, one of the guests brought up the subject of Lent. We were talking about how to use the Lenten season as a time of spiritual growth. I told the small group that I wanted to learn to pray better during the time leading up to Easter. One of the participants in the course was the chaplain for our church ladies’ group. She made it her business to nominate me to succeed her, telling me it would be an excellent way for me to develop my prayer skills. I stepped out in faith. It was a jarring jolt to my system, but my nominator was absolutely right. In acting as the chaplain, I became more intentional about prayer. I excavated and rebuilt the foundation of my own prayer life. I experimented with leading the monthly meeting devotionals with different types of prayer. I looked for ways to engage and involve our membership in creating active, powerful prayer. I presented a workshop about prayer, which culminated in a time of focused, peaceful, silent prayer. Our ladies told me they felt as if they truly felt the spirit of God in the room with us. I allowed myself to be more vulnerable in sharing my own writing and prayers. There is no question that I developed my prayer skills during the two years I served as chaplain. And I loved doing it.
Over the past few years, I have expanded the scope of my “stepping out in faith” activities beyond Alpha. I have been involved in leadership in my church. The issues under discussion are more sensitive and controversial- sometimes even divisive. I have never been a fighter. All my life, I have avoided conflict and confrontation. My idea of peace-making and negotiating is appeasement. I give up instead of standing up. I have always convinced myself that whatever the issue in question was, it wasn’t a big deal, and I just did not care enough to fight. Although I hid from it, I did always understand that there are some things that are big deals and that I do care. Lately, God has been leading me to step out in faith in trickier situations. I believe He has put it in my heart to stand up and be counted on some issues- maybe even be a warrior.
It has not been easy. I struggle with myself and with others as I take this step out in faith. It is hard for me to trust my own thoughts and perspectives, especially when others resist. Some relationships have been strained. I try to do everything, even disagree with people, with love. I am aware, however, that my heart sometimes gets heated. I wonder if I am truly doing what God wants of me, especially since fighting is so counter to my nature. I wonder if I am simply pridefully pursuing my own perspective Selecting me to do spiritual battle seems a funny choice for God to make. On the other hand- precisely because this behavior is so unlike anything I would choose for myself- perhaps it must be God.
I guess I always thought that by the time I reached the advance age of sixty-four, God would be finished with me. I figured that He would have already equipped me with whatever attributes or talents He needed me to have to do the work He wanted me to do. It never occurred to me that He would want me to take on something completely out of character once I hit chapter three in my own personal book of life. I have to confess that I am still not sure that is what is happening because it is so darn difficult. The robe of authentic righteous indignation fits me poorly. There have been many times when I have tugged on the hem or pushed up the sleeves. More than once, I have had it half over my head to remove it. This experience requires me to surf wilder waves in my faith than ever in my life. I said a couple of weeks ago that I feel like I’ve struggled with my faith, but I know that “grown” is a better word that “struggled.” I sometimes think about what it has meant to stand up for one’s faith. The early Christian martyrs died for Christianity. There are still places in the world where people are jailed and murdered for their faith. Even in Western countries, there are people who are ridiculed and isolated from family and friends because they choose to become Christians. I have never experienced anything like those kinds of spiritual trials. Maybe the reason God is choosing me to stand up in this small way now is to show me that I can do it. God doesn’t need me to protect Him, but He wants me to trust that He will protect me.
What experiences have you had that has stretched your faith? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a muscle bound day!