Let us pray
|Star of Bethlehem by Jon McNaughton|
Truth always reveals itself to those who are willing to pay attention to it- but sometimes one has to suffer a beating with a clue-bat before that revelation actually sinks in.
In my specific case, when it came to questions of whether there is, in fact, some sort of higher Power out there, some Creator who watches out for us and who loves us, respects us, wants us to succeed, but never ever tries to mollycoddle us, it took quite a few such (metaphorical) beatings before that particular truth finally sank in.
As I've written several times before, when I was about thirteen years old, I came to the conclusion that I was an atheist. I renounced God, spat upon His Name, and took every opportunity that I could to take that very Name in vain. There is nothing new about this sort of thing, by the way; angsty young teenagers full of more hormones than common sense often make this mistake.
Some of us are fortunate enough to grow up, eventually.
Looking back on that period, I cannot really claim to have the first clue as to why I chose that particular path. After all, if one is to turn one's back on God, surely one should have a compelling, well-reasoned argument for doing so?
Yet I did not, and still do not. I suppose that I turned away from Him simply because, for most of my life up until then, I did not feel or understand His presence.
I did not see His Hand behind the best things in my life. I pretty much took the very happy tight-knit family that I grew up in for granted- I just sort of assumed that they would always be there. When my little sister came along, I was still too young to understand that there was, in fact, a divine Presence at work; after all, as my mother never tires of reminding me whenever she wants to tweak my nose a little, about a year before she came along, I had presented my parents with a very clear set of demands: a little brother, a little sister, or a puppy.
Not getting a puppy did rankle a bit at the time, I admit. I'd like to think that my sister has made up for it since then.
Moreover, my family was never spiritual, and still is not. Being from Asia as I am, the Christian understanding of God and spirituality was always looked upon with polite suspicion and mild disdain; memories of what the Christian West had done to our people over centuries of occupation and conquest still run bitter and deep. We stuck to a few annual traditions of going to the temple once every blue moon or so, and when I was growing up overseas we maintained that practice.
It had something to do with "keeping in touch with our roots", or some such thing. I couldn't see the point. All I know is that I hated dressing up in silly clothes to go stand around for three hours and be bored to tears while some priest droned on and on in a language that I did not understand while performing meaningless rituals for which I did not have the slightest use.
It is therefore quite fair to say that the good Lord and I did not exactly meet on the friendliest of terms, early on.
I spent many years as an atheist. It was supposed to be liberating to free oneself from the shackles of faith and to insist on discerning the causes of all things. We were supposed to be pioneers in a new age of enlightenment and discovery, throwing off the yoke of superstition and mysticism enforced by the irrational fear of some terrible glowering cosmic Presence who sent forth nothing but doom and death to those who dared disobey Him.
And yet... as I grew older and (at least a little) wiser, I began to see that atheism offered no solutions. It offered no hope. It was not even particularly well reasoned. Many of its adherents were socially maladapted, to put it very politely; the worst of them were so thoroughly and unpleasantly obnoxious as to cast doubt upon the very notion that atheists are somehow smarter and better informed than the rest of us.
The more that I read and understood about the world around me, the more that I saw how badly we had been misled and lied to, the more easily I was able to recognise that there are clear patterns of natural order underneath the chaos and madness of the modern world.
And eventually- it must have been about eight years back- I began to realise that this natural order could not have simply "evolved" out of nothing. Nor could it always have existed, for as atheists are forever reminding us, the SCIENCE!!! shows us pretty clearly that the Universe had a beginning.
The logic, to me, was clear: if there was a beginning of some kind, then this order, this structure, had to have been created. And that implied, whether I liked it or not, the clear presence of a Creator.
But oh, how I resisted that notion. I resisted even more ferociously the very notion that the Christian understanding of God simply seemed to make more sense than anyone else's. After all, wasn't Christianity responsible for so much that is wrong with this world?!
Hey, is there any law (yet) that makes it illegal to have a mistaken opinion?
It did not matter how thoroughly my atheistic beliefs- and that is the right word, even though atheists insist that "belief" is anathema to their creed- were dismantled by far wiser and better men, like Vox Day. I clung to the soft, comforting illusions of my beliefs because the alternative seemed harsh and painful. I stayed that way for a good long while, no longer a real atheist and willing, however grudgingly, to accept the presence of a Divine Creator, neither here nor there.
And then life beat me to my knees, and gave me but one choice: surrender and stay down, or get back up and soldier on.
One thing after another went horribly wrong. The economy collapsed. I lost my job, found another one pretty quickly, and then lost that one less than 18 months later. My extended family fell apart, and I had to watch from thousands of kilometres away as my father- my hero, my mentor, my role model, the kind of man that I have always aspired to be- very nearly crumbled under the grief and pain of that shock. Cherished relatives died. Friends disappeared. Money was tight, and the job market was barely above water.
It wasn't much fun, if I'm quite honest.
But I got back up. And I did it the only way that I knew how at the time.
I turned to God, and I prayed.
Not very well, because I didn't have the first clue how to do it. Still don't. But I did it anyway.
Because there was nowhere else to go.
To my immense surprise, He answered.
Not directly, of course, and not right away. That is not His way, as I have long since come to accept. But He stretched out His Hand and helped me get back up.
I didn't recognise His Hand for what it was at the time, naturally. I may be of considerably higher than average intelligence, but I can also be quite thick sometimes. But over time, I've come to recognise that He is there, that He is real, and that He loves and respects me- but that He will NEVER just solve my problems for me.
All He can do is provide the wisdom to recognise the truth for what it is, the strength to endure pain and hardship, and the willpower to do what is right, in accordance with His Law. The clues to solving my problems are always right there in front of me; all He does is perhaps point the way a bit.
Life has sucker-punched me a fair few times since those dark days. I have absolutely no doubt that there is plenty more unpleasantness in store. We do not live in a world of rainbows and unicorn farts, we live in a very dark, mean, and dirty place that will gladly strip us bare, flay us alive, roll us in salt, and throw us unto the streets to starve if we let it.
And yet... in spite of all of the pain and misery of this world, in spite of all of the evil surrounding us, the natural order that I saw little glimpses of all those years ago still shines through. It's still out there. All we have to do is look for it.
I don't pretend to have answers to difficult questions. I try my best to figure out what that order is. Sometimes, if I am unusually fortunate and my interpretations of the facts are correct, I get it right.
But I know this much for certain now: if ever I have need of Him, the Creator is there. All I have to do is ask.
So I do. Not as often as I should, but often. I ask for His forgiveness for my endless transgressions against His Law. I ask Him to watch over those that I love the most. I ask Him for wisdom and temperance.
Most of all, though, I ask Him for strength.
I never ask Him to spare me pain and difficulty. I know now, as I never did when I was an atheist, that pain, suffering, and grief must be endured by a man so that he may understand what true joy really is. When I was an atheist I would have given much to be spared pain; these days, I just about embrace it.
You don't squat and deadlift twice your own body weight if you want to be spared pain. You don't engage in full-contact sparring against real martial artists with no shin or foot protection and no headgear if you don't want to suffer. You don't expose yourself to the vagaries of a woman's affections and moods if you never want to get hurt.
Don't get me wrong, I have no desire to sign up for daily waterboarding. I just know that, no matter how bad things get, no matter how badly my body hurts or how weary my spirit becomes, there is a lesson to be learned from that pain.
And so, I pray. Still not particularly well, and probably not very coherently either, but I pray nonetheless.
(I am reliably informed that there is a collection of useful prayers contained in something called "Psalms", in this quite ancient but still extremely popular book called The Bible, which were written by many men far wiser and better than myself for the express purpose of talking to the Big Fella Upstairs. I'm looking into it...)
I pray for the strength to endure, to learn, and to become... better.
Because that, ultimately, is all that any of us can ask for from the good Lord.