At the risk of getting into trouble with the readers, I’ll say it: I find it hard to believe in God.
I call myself a Christian. I attend mass and recite the Creed. I read Christian books and write for Christian publications. And yet, on a daily basis, I find it difficult to pray. I rarely feel the presence of an incredible and invisible divine being. When someone asks me to pray for them, I do. But I often wonder who or what I’m praying to. Looking at the harsh realities of ecological collapse and world civil unrest, the pain and disappointment in my own life, I often wonder if materialistic atheists might be right.
When I meet people who claim to believe in God without asking questions, or who regularly receive comfort and solace from prayer, I am filled with wonder and envy. It is not that such prayerful consolations are totally absent from my life, but I cannot say that they come often.
Sometimes I meet professed and practicing Christians who confess similar struggles with the faith, but they are rare. When I asked a former spiritual director if he thought many other Catholics had the same doubts as I did, he said he was quite sure. “So why don’t they talk about it? I asked. Laughing, he replied, “Because it’s scary. “
However, even though I struggle, I always seem to go back to believe. As David Foster Wallace told the Class of 2005 Kenyon College in his beloved “This is Water” speech, everyone revere something:
There is nothing like not worshiping. Everyone loves it. The only choice we get is what we worship. And an exceptional reason for choosing some sort of God or something spiritual type to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother goddess or the Four Noble Truths or an unbreakable set of ethical principles – is pretty much that. whatever you worship will devour you alive. If you love money and things – if they are where you tap into the real meaning of life – then you will never have enough. Never feel that you have had enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body, beauty, and sexual attractiveness and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age begin to show up you will die a million dead before they finally crash you. […] Power of worship – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, be seen as intelligent – you will end up feeling stupid, an impostor, always on the verge of being discovered. Etc.
From January 2019 until the time the pandemic hit in 2020, I regularly went through a twelve step program. For the purposes of this room, I don’t need to say which one, because in essence they are all the same. AA, Al-Anon, NA, SLAA – the first step in each of these programs is to admit our helplessness in the face of something destructive that has made our lives unmanageable. The second is to entrust our lives and our will to a higher power that can restore us to sanity.
For me, this Higher Power always ends up being the Triune God whom I was taught from birth. And although I may find it difficult to know Jesus as a friend and brother, when I read about him in the pages of scripture, I am always confirmed that he is the right person to follow. So far no one better has shown up.
Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. There is a certain absurdity to the notion of Jesus of Nazareth as a remote royal figure. The Jesus of the Gospels was a wanderer who wandered preaching the virtues of meekness, justice and peace; he befriended people on the fringes of society and constantly challenged religious and secular authority. At the end of today’s Gospel reading from John, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, Jesus intelligently responds, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. All who belong to the truth listen to my voice. He is careful not to claim royal terrestrial authority; instead, he subverts it, attesting to a truth that is greater than the claims of the Roman Empire.
My own self-destructive tendencies often take the form of people whom I have allowed to gain unwarranted royal status – at least in the small realm of my heart and mind. For years, in the face of constant conflict with a co-worker subject to harsh criticism and temperamental behavior, I walked in perpetual fear of outbursts and harsh words. When romantic relationships don’t work out the way I would like, I struggle to move forward, obsessively clinging to the image of the one who chose to leave, languishing for years in the false hope that they can return, pouring large amounts of energy down a hopeless sewer. From 2016 to 2020, I was constantly horrified by former President Trump’s crass and racist statements as well as many of his political decisions. Now I watch my elderly parents (who were ardent supporters of Trump) display the same attitude towards President Biden. Sometimes I check the news obsessively, obsessed with the next horror.
What if Christ is the only King? What if this unmarried, childless, unemployed carpenter son who wandered through Galilee laying hands on the sick, forgiving sins and challenging the powers of the world was our only authority? Maybe the complaints from the difficult co-worker wouldn’t ring out so loud. Maybe the wounds inflicted by others could be put in a different perspective, and the harsh voices in my head would soften. Perhaps today’s worldly authorities could lose some of the excessive power we invest in them, and we could regain some of our own power as followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is in this world but not of it.
This feast day also marks the end of the liturgical year as we move towards the reflective and penitential time of Advent. All around me I hear several people saying that 2021 has been a more difficult year than 2020. As horrific as the start of the pandemic was, we had clear certainty about how we needed to change our lives. Now, even with vaccines that have been shown to be effective, the virus is not going away as many in the wealthy world refuse the vaccine and most in the rest of the world still cannot access it. Infections and deaths continue; As the news moves on to other topics, they have unfortunately become normalized. Some people choose to resume all of their pre-pandemic activities, while others choose to maintain high levels of caution. 2021 began with a violent assault on the United States Capitol and saw civil unrest, political strife, the lived effects of climate change in the form of fires, droughts and floods, the ongoing destruction of the ‘Amazonia and a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. It has not been an easy year.
It’s so hard not to get overwhelmed by the state of the world as well as personal concerns. It’s hard not to feel helpless. But even as Jesus faced his own execution at the hands of the Roman state, he refused to relinquish his true power. It is for this reason that two thousand years later his name is still known, and it is for this reason that, today as in ancient times, his teachings resonate so strongly with those who face the political oppression. As we follow him, responding to his call for justice, mercy, and compassion, we discover our own ability to make changes in our own lives that could radiate to change the lives of those around us and those who are far. By taking up our cross to follow the King crowned with thorns, we can act in this world with his power.