Do you believe that I will provide for you? Do you believe that I will hear and answer your prayer...that I want good things for you and the people you love even more than you want them yourself?
God's been asking me these questions for a while but, prior to this year, I would say that my honest answer would probably be "maybe." God, maybe you will provide for me, but I should have a back-up plan just in case. Maybe you want good things for me, but all of the arranging, the planning, the work is entirely up to me. My persistent "maybe" felt safe. After all, if you don't commit, you avoid disappointment. But you also cut yourself off from joy, from action, from relationship.
Struggling with faith is nothing new for me, although externally I probably appear as someone who has the whole faith thing figured out. Sometimes this struggle took the form of persistent questions about God's existence. At other times the fundamental doubt was fixed on a particular sadness of the world or metaphysical problem that made it hard for me to trust in the existence of a loving God. But most of the time I doubted that God really loved me completely, wanted to listen to all my prayers, and actually could answer them. In short, I struggled to believe with my head and my heart.
Faith is hard. It is both choice and gift, leap and assent. It's a complete mystery in the sense that we will never "master" it or subdue it to our intellect or will. It cannot be studied under a microscope or proven empirically, although it rests on a strong foundation of logic, theology, and observation of the human experience. I have found that my most profound and unshakeable reasons for believing in God were found in experience: answered prayers, small miracles, and the witness of others that convince me that, yes, God is absolutely real, loves me, and wants to grant me every good and perfect gift.
I've also learned that God can handle my doubts because he gave me this critical, questioning brain for a reason. But even when I doubt him, he believes in me, like a coach, a teacher, a parent, a friend, a lover who sees the good in another and is willing to do whatever it takes to help them see it too. He already believes in me...literally believing me into existence. But just like a coach, parent, friend, lover, or a teacher can't live life for the person they believe in, so God cannot force faith, hope, and love on me. I have to turn to him and receive that love.
This year, God asked me to turn to him in confident, affirmative faith, believing that he desires good things for me and those I love and actually has the power to grant them. He asked me to stop calculating my own abilities, time, chances of success and simply ask him to provide. As is the case with most of my spiritual growth, this shift was facilitated by someone else of greater faith than I. I have a dear friend, a young woman who has overcome immense obstacles in order to become a Christian, preserve her character and even her life, travel to a new country, and pursue her dreams. She is a woman of ocean-deep faith and constant prayer, and she challenged me to pray as if I actually thought God would answer my prayers. That is what she does...and it has produced numerous miracles in her life. I can't really argue with her real-life evidence of the power of faith. She gets this stuff straight from the Bible:
28After Jesus had entered the house, the blind men came to Him. “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” He asked.“Yes, Lord,” they answered. 29 Then He touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you.” Matthew 9:28
(For more proof that Jesus wants us to pray with faith read pretty much any other Gospel miracle).
So last August or September, I gave God a list that went something like this: Dear God, I am overworked and tired. I have so many projects that I love and believe that you want to continue, but I NEED HELP. To be specific, I need tutors for ESL students, an assistant cross country coach, and catechists willing to prepare children for the Sacraments. I need money for jerseys. I need the parish pastor to agree to our new sacrament program. I need the parents and students to commit. I need it all and literally cannot imagine how it will all get done. But I believe you can do it. So please, please do.
And one by one, my providential God checked, checked, and checked his way down my list of needs. Every single one was granted in a way I could not have forced or foreseen. This praying with faith thing works, I thought.
Around December, I became convicted that I was called to leave my school the upcoming year. I knew God was asking me to move, as much as I loved the "miracle in Memphis" where I was privileged to teach. I feverishly applied to charter schools and Montessori programs, adding La Finca on as a complete "outlier." (I actually hand wrote the application essays in Starbucks. I am kind of surprised they accepted me!) I was bubbling with hope and expectation about the future until, shortly after returning to Memphis, I received the heartbreaking news that our incredible urban Catholic schools would be closing after the 2018-19 school year and re-open as charter schools. God, what do I do? My friends need me. My school needs me. How can I leave them in their time of need?
But little by little the Holy Spirit called me towards La Finca with the irresistible forces of joy and a sense of mission. Good mentors reminded me to pursue God's inspiration first and then trust him to solve the problems, but I still felt terrible. So I made another prayer/list: Dear God, I need you to provide for my friends who feel like I am abandoning. I need you to send incredible teachers to De La Salle. I need you to figure out this whole losing our school's Catholic identity thing. I need an incredible successor teacher to take care of my kids. Also, maybe bring a male teacher into the middle school staff because it would be great for the kids. And God, that relationship that I've struggled to understand for the past five years...the one I can't solve or work out...I pray that you give me answers about that too, because I'm out of ideas and I am about to leave the country for a year and a half. So help!
I prayed a 54 day rosary novena for that list, pounding out my intentions as I logged miles on my runs. And what did God do? God sent an incredible new cadre of teachers to my school including a male teacher for the middle school team! And my successor is a bright new teacher whose passion for Christ and working with urban youth make me 100% confident that she will quickly surpass me! I found out that our school network is working on developing an after school religious education program. Just yesterday, I checked in on my school to find that they had an incredible first day...an answered prayer. Today a received a call from the talented music teacher who is filling another part of the job I left vacant. I should not be surprised, because God cares more about those kids than I ever could.
And that relationship I prayed about? After five years of "unanswered" prayers and anxiety, God gave me the conviction and courage to move from the limbo of maybe into the joy of a "yes." Considering a new relationship brought on a whole new set of concerns, so I asked God if he wanted me to chose between the relationship and the mission, assuming that God would require a sacrifice of one or the other. But, quietly and firmly, again and again, God reassured me that he would grant me both. And he did. Remember the miracle of the loaves and the fishes? We give God so little, but he multiplies it. We sow scarcity, but he reaps abundance for us. (But pray for me and my incredible boyfriend, because we are taking on the challenge of a really long distance relationship).
Most recently, God has affirmed my faith through the process of fundraising for my mission. When I first began fundraising, I was filled with anxiety. I feared that I wouldn't get enough, that I would have to spend my precious time off with my family feverishly seeking donations. And then I remembered God's fidelity, and I turned to him in prayer. Through the incredible generosity of friends, family, and even strangers, I have exceeded my funding goal and now can offer funds directly to La Finca’s operating costs. At this point, I am no longer surprised at God's generosity to be honest. I am simply overwhelmed with gratitude.
When writing about the power of faith and prayer, I am reminded that not all faith-filled prayers are answered. It's wrong to view God as a vending machine or ascribe to the "prosperity gospel" mentality. Poverty, scarcity, illness, and suffering are harsh realities. Sacrifice is a necessary aspect of human life, and particularly Christian life. But some of us do not even give God the chance to say "no" because we never even ask. God wants nothing short of our absolute, affectionate trust. He wants us to believe that he really does want to answer our wildest prayers and satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. And if what we are asking is too small or not right for us, he will say no, but only to offer us something even greater in the end. When a teacher assigns a tough assignment or a coach puts her team through a grueling practice, she does it because she believes in her kids' abilities beyond what they can see right now.
To close off this rambling post on faith, I must say thank you. A very special thank you goes out to all of those people who showed up for me because of their faith. Their generosity enables me to 1) believe in God's promises and 2) pass on the love they have given to me to the most needy. Thank you to all of my friends who stepped up to help me navigate this year. Thank you to my donors who believe in the mission of Finca de los Ninos and were willing to sacrifice financially to help me do God's will. I will never be able to repay your generosity, but I will be able to extend it to God's children. And thank you God, for believing in me first and helping me believe in you.