Post Author: Alice Horner
During the months of my brother’s deployment, his email correspondence was often my sustenance during a string of bad days. What began as simple ‘catching up’ turned into much deeper conversations, with me furiously typing my faith struggles – those questions that abound in the first year of seminary – tossing doubts and ideas into his inbox. It helped him, he said, because the “outside world” was something he missed. Thinking about something besides his duties in the isolated world of deployment was a welcome change.
Meanwhile, I was suffering from idea overload here in Atlanta. Classes, conversations with friends, and even the thoughts that settle in my mind as I drift to sleep revolve around the same questions of theology and faith. How can my cynicism be overridden by love and acceptance? What is the point of pain and suffering? And most frequently asked of all: What do I know anyway? Doubt is the one unifying theme that reverberates in my brain like a broken record.
Seminary has forced me to become acquainted with the feeling of not knowing. You don’t have a choice, really. It is alternating periods of adjustment, waiting, praise, frustration, and more adjustment. You write papers and take exams that measure your learning, simply continuing the academic environment of college. Yet seminary has an accompanying, and incredibly sly, type of test. You begin to evaluate what parts of your faith need to be overhauled. What used to be an absolute truth becomes questionable. What you never learned to begin with becomes painfully obvious. Your beliefs about the church become a construction zone lined with caution tape. And often these experiences blindside you on a random Tuesday, leaving you gasping for air, and hoping for some kind of answer that will assuage your fears.
Seminary is both my exhilarating dream and my burden. When asked in sermons, “What are you doing in your life for Christ?”, there is a part of me screaming. My sarcastic self emerges with a retort: well Pastor, my whole life has been changed, I moved to a new city and left my old friends, changed my lifestyle, and when I think about it, drained my bank account too! The days when I am weary, it is difficult to really feel the benefit of the life I’ve chosen. We are reminded again and again in our classes that the life we have chosen is filled with challenges, and are told to carry this burden with joy and gratitude. As young future ministers, we face a broken body of Christ, with churches struggling to heal and be effective witnesses of the Gospel. Facing this environment, I find it difficult to continue down the path with joy. How can I help change such a broken place when I myself feel so incomplete?
I am an inspirational quote junkie, and I often rely on those for sustenance. I would write the words of Rumi or Frederick Buechner on post-its and stick them anywhere and everywhere. But on these recent bad days when I threw a pity party that could rival Kirsten Wiig’s character Annie in “Bridesmaids,” those quotes would only frustrate me. I needed something more concrete.
In his emails, my brother always signed off with the phrase “Keep the faith.” It was an encouraging signature coming from him, something I’m sure he had to repeat over and over to himself just to get through the day. It was almost a command, a standard he hoped I would hold myself up to. It inspired me and comforted me when I needed it. I took it on as a promise to him. Despite the loneliness and confusion that the day might bring, I would keep the faith.
The more my brother wrote that encouraging line, the more I began to notice where the spirit of God silenced the broken record of doubt. It seemed that once I stopped focusing on what I didn’t know, it allowed space for rest and joy. Now I find the most solace in the worship music at church on Sunday mornings. In this setting, no answer is required of me. My faith is not tested, but reenergized. It is simply my time to praise my God, open my hands and just ask the Lord to renew my heart for another week. And it is the time when I can really feel God’s spirit giving me life. My faith may be changing, but its strength is not threatened. It still resides deep within my soul, and it bursts to the surface and fills me with life during those songs. And in those moments of worship I am reminded of the endurance of faith, the faith that I have to let go and still hold close to me.
My frustration still exists, and I’ve accepted it as a part of the calling. Yet it never takes the place of the foundation of faith that’s been laid as a response to the immense doubt within my first year of seminary. It is truly amazing how the human spirit defends itself against the toxicity of fear. Despite the fact that my faith is under construction, its foundation has not moved. As seminarians, we have to trust that power. We have to keep the faith.