Monday, November 07, 2011
Parking lots and faith
A few weeks ago, I was driving through the church parking lot looking for a parking space before the late afternoon worship service. Just about the time I saw a spot close to the building I also spotted another car at the far end of the lane turn in and come up the row towards me—and my parking space. Two thoughts went through my head in that second:
I saw it first.
Wait. You’re at church. Let them have it.
When both of us drove by the spot and left it for the other, I could only laugh. Only in a church parking lot.
But as I pulled into another space an aisle over, another thought went through my head: Why don’t you do that all the time?
This wasn’t the first time in the past few months that I’d been confronted with the uncomfortable realizations that my attitudes and outlook on life needed some adjustment. Frankly, it’s been a rough year, and for the last few months it’s felt like I’ve been crawling out from the under the weight of it. Several close family members had grappled with serious health problems, and that both confronted and left me wrestling with the reality of mortality, the fragility of life, and that we all will eventually lose those we love and leave those we love behind. We’d also moved from one city to another and started new schools and a new church, so my support system was thin. And I’ve also faced a couple of challenges health-wise that, while they don’t appear to be anything to write home about in the end, add to the stress. People I know are facing a heck of a lot worse, but it still feels like the foundations of my corner of the world have taken some damage. And, frankly, I didn’t cope as well as I could have. My faith, as Andrew Peterson puts it in Far Country, had gotten “shaken in the dark.” To be honest, there are still days when it doesn’t feel like it would take much to be pulled under again.
But there it was again. That nudge.
I confess, I didn’t like how my first instinct had been to snag the parking spot; it was selfish. And I don’t want to be selfish; I want to be generous. I know from past experience that I am more content being generous than trying to eke out of the world at every turn what I think should be mine. Somewhere over the past year, however, I had allowed a selfish cynicism to take root in me—and I didn’t like it.
So, the next day I did something different. When I went into a parking lot—be it the grocery store, Walmart, the kids’ schools or anywhere else—I intentionally drove past open spaces and parked further out. As I did, I gave those spaces to God to use as he will. That sounds a little corny, but it helped to think that maybe some harried mother of toddlers might use it. Or maybe someone was having a really bad day, and a spot closer to the door would make it just a bit better. Even if it wasn’t going to be used at all, however, I was still consciously replacing a selfish habit with one that would help cultivate a more generous spirit in myself so I could become the kind of person who more consistently put the best interests of others above my own selfishness.
But after awhile, something else began to happen. As I parked, I found myself thinking about how scripture tells us that we can afford to be generous because of who God is and what he says he can do. How he promises to provide everything we need. That he’s not in the business of death but the business of restoration—of our lives, the lives of our children, the lives of the people we love, the lives of the strangers we bump into everyday, the whole world. That he loves me and those I love, that he’s working everything to the good—even things meant for evil. That he is there even if it doesn’t seem like he exists at all. And that, in the end, everything will be okay.
Lately, in my more honest moments, I must confess I’ve had a hard time with that. I’ve walked long enough with God to experience those truths in my life. I’ve also walked with God long enough to know how hard it can be to trust that he is who he says and can do what he says in the darker, murkier times. But one of the other things I’ve learned about darkness is that it isn’t so much a place as it is a kind of blindness, a momentary inability to see the truth. In my experience, sometimes the only thing you can do is wait—and trust.
So, to my parking lot habit I’ve recently added another simple discipline: a mini-meditation or litany of sorts. In the midst of it all, I chose to declare that I trust he is who says and can do what he says in a way akin to that desperate father of a suffering son: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
It helps to remember that doubt is a natural, if unwelcome, companion in our journey and faith—but of who's flaws we must also be aware. In Christianity Today article “The Benefit of the Doubt,” Mark Buchanan posits that “the depth of our doubt is roughly proportionate to the depth of our faith,” that “those with strong faith have equally strong doubts.” But he cautions, “Here lies the basic flaw of all doubt: it really can never be satisfied. No evidence is ever fully, finally enough. Doubt wants always to consume, never to consummate. It clamors endlessly for an answer, and so drowns out any answer that might be given. It demands proof, but will doubt the proof proffered. Doubt, then, can become an appetite gone wrong; its craving increases the more we try to fill it.” But ultimately, Buchanan says, “Doubt, when honest, should set us on a quest for that which is true, real, that for which we can give not only our intellectual assent but, even more, that to which we can entrust our very lives.”
It is not a comfortable place to be. But it’s a lot better than the place I was.
And I’ve also started to take comfort again in Henri Nouwen’s words about life’s setbacks: “When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. Your healing is not a straight line. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don’t say to yourself, ‘All is lost. I have to start all over again.’ This is not true. What you have gained, you have gained… try to think about it instead as being pulled off the road for a while. When you return to the road, you return to the place where you left it, not to where you started.”
Passing by a parking space may seem like a puny effort, but it’s making a difference. On my better days, it amazes me how what little I give to God comes back in waves. Peace and joy are slowly ebbing back into my heart. I can smell hope again. I think more about what it means to love those I am with. I am even bumping into those familiar moments of exquisite joy. And on the not-so-good days? I struggle. But there’s a new defiance in me, a pull from within, a determination to do what little I can to cooperate with God to walk free on that road once more.
Life can get messy, and sometimes the most regular spiritual discipline I can manage is intentionally passing by an open parking space in order to remind myself who God is. But, as it turns out, that can be enough.