7.17.2012

Book Review: Confessions of an Amateur Believer

Normally I write my book reviews on Goodreads and just share with my fellow reading friends through that system. But when I read this book, I had so many thoughts about God and my own spiritual journey I thought a blog post was much more fitting.

My dear friend Mandy loaned me this book after an intense small group session where she and I realized that at some point we held the same skepticism surrounding God and whether he was really 'here.' She offered up this book as something that 'got her through' and I was more than willing to give it a go.

The entire book is about the author's foray in and out and IN Christianity. She writes about a personal tragedy that altered her relationship with God and her struggle to rebuild her faith.

I didn't experience a personal tragedy, but I did lose sight of God for a very long time. As a child, I attended church regularly and believing in God was easy. As Patty writes 'Who doesn't believe in God in childhood? ...In those invisible qualities of love, justice, order and forgiveness? ....Being heard and paid attention to. Being loved, no matter what.' (p. X). Personally, I found church and congregational activities comforting. I made a lot of friends at camp and even enjoyed the competition brought on by Awana's- earning badges for verses memorized and booklets completed.

It's when I got older that unbelief settled in. At some point between middle school and high school I became very aware of the 'uncool' things I was: an academic, a rule-follower and a Christian.
As I slowly ceased to maintain those qualities, my feelings about church changed as well. Church was no longer a happy place, it became a place of shame for me. In fact, each time I went, I felt God was putting me on a guilt trip. It became easier for me to forget about God instead of change who I was becoming.

I don't recall the exact day when I decided to just ditch God completely. It was a slow progression. I stopped going to Wednesday night bible study, then I stopped going on Sundays and then I didn't even go on the holidays. At some point, I packed up all the bibles I had been awarded in my years at church and effectively erased God from my life. Patty put it this way: "And I can remember many times when, having finally come to know him, I forgot all about him [Jesus]" (p. 50)

After that, I felt like all I did was struggle. I always felt like something was missing. Like part of my whole being was just absent. Patty compares these feelings of unbelief to mourning a loved one, 'the nagging absence of a remembered face' (p XI). She goes on to describe unbelief as 'much less a conscious rejection of God than a sense of abandonment and loss. A sense of our own aloneness. And the certainty that no effort on our part can restore to use the one we loved' (p XI).

Patty writes that during her years of struggle, 'not believing in him, not seeing him, having no faith at all, I nevertheless felt him there. He was present in my anger. Present in my loneliness. Present in my world's refusal to be what I wanted it to be, and present in his own denial of anything I wanted to make him into' (p 67).
That last sentence resonated with me.
I never pinpointed that the thing missing from my life was the thing I pushed away. I was angry. And bitter. I felt like even though I wasn't attending church and reading my bible I was still a good person and God just hated me. I think it's important to note here that I never doubted the existence of God. I think he was always there, I just chose to ignore him. I thought I could figure out my life and only I could make things the way I wanted.

And when things failed to work out the way I wanted, I would escape- into a busy schedule, a new hobby, a phase of excessive drinking, or in some cases- physically moving. Patty escaped through travel. Her 'movement all over the world' was her 'faithless attempt to control my fate, to do the impossible and to be content in spite of the miseries of my growing-up years' (p 184). In that way, we are similar. She talks about healing herself and to 'shed ugliness and loss and pain' by 'sheer will' (p 184). I too thought I could be in complete control of the direction my life took. That I didn't need the guidance or love of God to live a complete and content life. I could self-medicate and self-heal.

A few years ago, I remember sitting with my dad and step mom on their porch having a discussion about God (talk of philosophy tends to creep in every time my dad and I have a few drinks together...but that's a whole other topic!)
I remember this particular time because I was arguing all the reasons why I shouldn't go to church and driving holes in everything from creation, to resurrection and my step mom said 'Nicki, don't make it so hard. Stop fighting it and just go to church.'
She was right.

About 2 years ago I just woke up one day and decided I was going to start going to church again. At least that's how I remember it. I had been reading my bible off and on but it didn't seem to be enough. I remember telling T that I felt like it was something I had to do, that I needed it. Coming back to the church was one of the best decisions I feel like I've ever made. Spending time with other believers discussing scripture, reflecting on Jesus and seeing faith truly lived has grown my relationship with God tremendously.

I remember that fall when I first started attending church again. My heart was open to the message of Jesus love for me. That made all the difference. I felt like I was really awake for the first time, like I was seeing the world the way God intended.
Patty describes seeing by faith as ' an intentional refocusing of our ordinary sight, a conscious recognition of the person of God behind everything we see and hear and smell and feel and taste...To see by faith is to search out and lay claim to these invisible qualities found even in ourselves-creatures made in God's image- qualities hidden deep within us in the safe cleft of his grace and provision' (p 159-160). I, too, felt that shift in focus.

I've been a practicing Christian for about 2 years now. I try to read my bible daily and attend church regularly. I pray when I remember, when I feel like someone could use the extra love and when I'm walking Roxy in the early morning. I try to help others and live by God's rules of love and justice.
But I still have a lot of questions. There is still a lot of the bible I'm not sure I understand.

Patty talks about a story of John the Baptist waiting to be beheaded, wondering if Jesus truly is the son of God. She quotes Matthew 11:12- 'From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.' What does that mean? I'm not sure I know and Patty says she hasn't 'the faintest idea what it means....But for the moment this too is a blessing, a love message from God himself, to John and to me, that it is all right to doubt- that to doubt is to seek, and to seek is to hope, and to hope urgently, insistently, with certainty, is to have all the faith we need in order to survive whatever lies ahead' (p 141).

I don't have it all figured out and I still struggle with the fact that God loves me so much for no reason whatsoever except that he chose me. Reading Patty's story of struggle and faith in ways that are so similar to me eases my heart.

As Patty and Psalms so eloquently put it:
"God is so amazingly generous. I ask, he gives. Just like that. I worry; he counsels me in the night. He molds my very heart in his hands and instructs me in his ways."

I could go on and on and on about Patty's insight into the faith struggle and how I can relate, but I would recommend just reading the book for yourself.