“The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught. Therefore, once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder;” – Isaiah 29:13-14 NIV
I once saw a poster about success that resonated with me. On the left hand side it had a straight line that sloped gently upward from left to right into an arrow that implied a constant upward trajectory. Below the line it read, “What people think success looks like.” On the right hand side it had a similar straight line that began to gently slope upward, then erupted into a mass of spaghetti-like twists and turns, doubling back on itself multiple times, until finally returning to its gentle upward slope into an arrow. Below that illustration it read, “What success actually looks like.” It’s a cute message that, even though you may be in a place today that is as good or even better than you thought you would be at the start, the journey is rarely, if ever, a gentle upward slope. It’s almost always messy.
For me, the poster could just as easily be captioned thusly: “What I thought my faith journey should look like” on the left, and on the right, “What my faith journey has actually looked like.”
Like many people my relationship with God has been “on again, off again.” When I was young, I was a dutiful Christian; going to church with my mom, participating in youth group, being confirmed, serving as an acolyte. The problem was, as I began to develop an understanding of God it wasn’t as someone to have a relationship with. Instead, He was merely a set of rules and regulations meant to keep me on the right path. He was “the Law”. So as I grew older and left for college, I pushed God away, not as if breaking up with someone but as if doing what most young people do when they get to college: shedding the old rules and regulations that restricted them as kids and really moving out into the world to discover yourself. Sadly, without the walls to keep me in, or the relationship with God to help me navigate an incredibly exciting but overwhelming time, my boundaries shifted under my feet and led to nothing but trouble. Getting kicked out of school my junior year should have been the wakeup call I needed, but as we’ll see later that was still years away.
In my 20’s I lived in a string of urban areas: Philadelphia for college, New York to start my career, Baltimore once my career took a turn for the worse. All the while, I was making no attempt to bring God back into the fold. It was like I was traveling the world collecting all sorts of experiences and I couldn’t be bothered to send Him even so much as a postcard. At each of those stops along the way I was drifting further and further off course. The OCD and anxiety disorder that I would be diagnosed with a few years later started in Philly. The panic attacks began in New York. By the time 9/11 arrived and I lost my job, I was headed back home to live with my parents. The funny thing is, I thought I knew exactly what I was doing with my life. But in reality, the straight line to success that I thought I had figured out was becoming more and more tangled by the week.
Lucky for me, as hard as I tried to ignore Him, God wasn’t done with me. And while He rarely tells us what form the rescue will take, He does know who it is that will provide it. In my case, ironically, it was an old Jewish doctor from Ruxton, MD. He had lived a pretty amazing life himself. He was in real estate investments and he ran a hospital among many other things. But now, later in life, he was my psychiatrist. And over the next few years he yanked me out of my box and broke me down and put me back together again.
It was therapy that helped me put my faith journey back on track. Opposite from being in conflict with my faith, therapy helped me to engage with it. It helped me to know how to be in a relationship again, and thankfully God was still hanging around waiting for me to let Him back in. Unbeknownst to me, He had been preparing my heart and mind for a relationship with Him, and therapy taught me how to relate again.
When married life came along, I thought I would ease back into my relationship with God. I told my soon to be wife that I might just sit at home on Sunday mornings, watch TV, and eat a slow breakfast like my father would do. But like so many times to come my wife skillfully motivated me to church, and slowly something began to grow in me. The flame was lit and the fire was smoldering but I wasn’t quite there yet. The fuse was finally lit for real when we arrived at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase.
Depression often takes the form, as a medical friend once said to me, of putting ourselves on trial and acting as judge, jury and chief prosecution witness all rolled into one. I thought I was broken beyond repair, but All Saints showed me differently.
One of the things we encountered when we showed up at All Saints was other people who had been through IVF just as we had. Going through that process a few years earlier had really shaken my image of myself. But at All Saints I was embraced, not judged, and a part of me that I struggled with was able to heal.
The people at All Saints taught me how to pray, to read devotionals, and to be a little bit better at telling people about my God and how much I love Him. I’m still not great at it. I still don’t pray every morning, as I would like to. I often look at my devotional like it’s a chore rather than a joy. I still leave encounters with people wishing I had told them about Jesus and how beautiful a life with Him can be. But most importantly, I am learning how to be broken. I am learning how to be vulnerable and open myself up to the world and to have confidence that, when I am vulnerable, God will find me and His Holy Spirit will bind the pieces back together so I can continue on my journey.
I am still in therapy. And I am still passionate for my relationship with God. And like an old beat up car, I may break down every once in a while, but thanks to so many unexpected people from so many unexpected places, at least I am on the right road.