A Subtle Mercy
Yesterday was a quiet day at home and my wife was doing some sorting and cleaning around the house. Around mid-afternoon, she emerged from one room with a large stack of papers and presented them to me with a little smile on her face. I looked at the first page on the stack and knew why she was smiling. The pile of paper was a prayer journal that I had kept during my mid twenties. During this apparently pious (and prolific!) period of my life, I journaled nearly every day, filling a number of thick notebooks with my religious musings, longings, entreaties, and expressions of thanks.
It was fascinating, at the outset of a new year, to revisit significant periods of my life through the lens of my own prayers. From our journey through infertility and adoption to significant education and career transitions for ourselves and those we love to the many ordinary ups and downs of church and marriage and work and play, prayer was the context in which each of these experiences was negotiated. No matter how inarticulate or selfish or misguided or just plain wrong my words may have been at various points, a common thread of God’s fidelity and guiding presence was obvious throughout.
It was also a bit strange to leaf through these journals again. In some ways, it felt like I was reading someone else’s words. At times, I barely recognized the idealistic, zealous, and somewhat naive young man behind them. But there were other times where the struggles, joys, pains of a life of faith were all too familiar. As I was reading yesterday, there were times when I found myself thinking, “hmm, haven’t made too much progress on that in the last decade…” It was a bit discouraging, at times, to see how little I have changed in some areas. It isn’t easy to become the people we aspire to be, I suppose. Sometimes the change in our lives that we want or expect comes—or at least seems to come—at a downright glacial pace.
One of the interesting things about reading personal prayers from a decade ago was being reminded of some of the books I was reading at the time. Some of these make me shudder today, others were a pleasant and welcome reintroduction. Among those that would fall into the latter category was Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. And it is her words about change and God’s way of working in the world that have provided a welcome framework through which to approach a new year:
But they also reveal a basic and valuable truth about conversion—that we do not suddenly change in essence, magically becoming new people, with all our old faults left behind. What happens is more subtle, and to my mind, more revealing of God’s great mercy. In the process of conversion, the detestable parts of our selves do not vanish so much as become transformed. We can’t run from who we are, with our short tempers, our vanity, our sharp tongues, our talents for self-aggrandizement, self-delusion, or despair. But we can convert, in its root meaning of turn around, so that we are forced to face ourselves as we really are. We can pray that God will take our faults and use them for the good.
Over time, I have learned two things about my religious quest: First of all, that it is God who is seeking me, and who has myriad ways of finding me. Second, that my most substantial changes, in terms of religious conversion, come through other people. Even when I become convinced that God is absent from my life, others have a way of suddenly revealing God’s presence. When I think of how the process works, I recall the scene at Calvary, as depicted in John’s gospel, when Jesus sees His mother standing near a disciple. “Woman,” he says to her, “here is your son. (And he says) to his disciple, ‘Here is your mother’” (John 19:26-27). It is through Jesus Christ, and the suffering Christ at that, that God seeks us out and gives us to each other.
I’m not really one for New Years resolutions, but I suppose if I had to make one for 2011, it would be to look more carefully, to listen more attentively, and to respond more determinedly to the subtle mercies through which God changes his people and his world.