On my way into work on the morning of Sept. 21, I was listening to NPR as I do every day. Actually, “listening” might be a bit of an overstatement. The truth is that the radio was on, tuned into NPR, and my mind was elsewhere, wandering. My attention was captured when I heard the announcer say, “Today is the final day of summer.” My attention caught, I realized I was basking in the warmth of the late summer sun warming my car through the windshield, with similar weather predicted for the next several days. In that moment it occurred to me that, if not for the announcer stating the obvious, I might move from summer into autumn without noticing. Though technically an official transition of the seasons, Sept. 21 becoming Sept. 22, might have come and gone with no awareness that it marked anything at all.
You may well be wondering why this anecdote has any relevance to keeping the faith. It’s a good question and one I hope to be able to answer in a reasonably coherent way. You see, it also occurred to me in almost that same moment that the kinds of transitions we make as our hearts are converted and our lives transformed can also go unnoticed until something happens to catch our attention, to jolt us into an awareness of how God has and continues to work in us. I believe the Holy Spirit is wily, wild, and wonderful, as well as willing to work her wonders in us and in God’s world in ways that may or may not be obvious at the time.
I know, too, there are people who can pinpoint the exact situation, the very moment they were aware of God’s presence in their lives. They have the kind of experience that Saul had on the road to Damascus and having his dramatic conversion underscored by a name change. Something happens, usually not itself a good or happy thing, God’s presence is felt/seen/experienced, and life is not lived the same after that.
Though not as dramatic as that, I, too, have had a couple of experiences in my life in which my awareness or experience of God’s presence was so vivid it was the faith equivalent of technicolor. I liken those experiences to that of the father in Mark 9, who desperately wants Jesus to heal his son, who has been possessed by an unclean spirit. The man turns to Jesus for help, believing, or maybe hoping, that Jesus is who Jesus is. Jesus seems to sense something less than complete faith, something less than complete trust. He challenges the man about the level of his belief, and the man responds with stark honesty, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus does and the man’s son is healed. It’s the kind of transformation that has fits and starts, kind of like poor Peter’s way of being first to claim knowledge of who Jesus is: “You are the Messiah” (as we read in Mark 8:27-28) and later, when perhaps it matters most, denying Jesus three times as the Romans seek to execute him. And yet Peter is the “rock” upon which the Christian Church is built.
Most often, though, it seems converted hearts and transformed lives are a far less dramatic process of knowing we live in the presence of God. We live our lives with a desire — perhaps known to us, perhaps not — to be open to God, to invite God into our hearts, minds, and lives. Maybe we maintain a specific prayer discipline. Perhaps we go to church or are part of a different kind of faith community. We may be Biblically familiar, perhaps even “literate.” We may or may not be content with how we understand God at work in and through us. Perhaps we define ourselves as in some faith-related way, such as religious or spiritual, agnostic or atheist. Mostly though, we are who we are, living our lives in the way that we do, which is more than enough for God to be God, inviting us deeper into relationship, until one day it happens: something catches our attention and we notice. We notice that we are not the same as before, not the same as we thought or knew ourselves to be. We notice in new or different ways that we are loved by God, with love freely given, undeserved, and infinitely ours.
The Rev. Paula J. Toland is Priest-in-Charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Oxford.