Paul Prather

The journey is the destination when pursuing a life of faith

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My friend Rick Landon said something the other night that I jotted in my notebook and have been thinking about since.

Describing the life of faith, he said, “The journey is the destination.”

As I mentioned in a previous column, I’m auditing a course at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, in Georgetown.

Rick is teaching the class, which is about spiritual formation. He’s a long-time friend of mine. That’s not why I signed up, but it’s a happy coincidence. He used to be a Baptist pastor. For many years now, however, he’s worked as a counselor and spiritual director.

What he said about the journey and the destination resonated with me.

For a long time, I’ve said the same thing to my congregation. I’ve said it for so long that I’d convinced myself I thought it up, which would have been pretty impressive.

But then Rick said it, too, and I realized it wasn’t original with me. It probably wasn’t original with him.

Wherever it came from, it’s an important point I needed to be reminded of.

I think a lot of us go along our spiritual sojourn believing that someday, if we’re good, if we keep our minds right, if we exercise moral self-control, we’ll finally arrive. We’ll receive that ultimate piercing blast of illumination. We’ll solve our very last problem. We’ll finally walk around every day inside a glowing, blinding, sinless bliss.

We’ll achieve permanent sainthood or sanctification or nirvana or whatever you prefer to call it.

But that never seems to happen.

As long as we live on this big mud ball, we never truly arrive. We’re always trekking into unknown, and sometimes frightening, lands.

Pursuing a life of the spirit isn’t for sissies, my friends. It has its glories, yes, but it also has many dark, terrifying nights.

And over and again, life here just gobsmacks us.

We run face-first into a new idea we haven’t confronted before. We’re caught up short by, say, an aggressive non-believer who’s smarter than we are and who turns all our religious assumptions inside out with her erudite arguments.

Or we get crushed by some personal disaster that leaves us bloodied in the bottom of a spiritual culvert. We lose a dear lover or a great job or a trusted brother and the loss crushes our souls.

Or we simply grow bored. We start thinking, “What’s the use of all this religious mumbo-jumbo? It’s a waste of energy and money. I’d much rather go golfing than be in church.” So we go golfing instead — for about five years.

Such things happen to the best of Christians (and probably to members of other faiths).

I’m always left gape-mouthed when I run into those who say, “I’ve never doubted God! I’ve never suffered a crisis of faith! Not me, brother! Me and Jesus walk on water together all day every day, holding hands like seventh grade cheerleaders!”

I don’t trust people like that. I figure they’re either lying or self-deluded.

Of course, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some folks are pure-dee saints. Maybe they’re far better disciples than you and me. Only God knows for sure.

But this I do know. And I’m definitely not wrong about this: The majority of us struggle, sometimes for months or years on end. Not all the time — but some of the time.

We slip off our proverbial spiritual mountaintop. We mope and curse our luck. We throw our Bible in the backyard trash barrel and set it afire.

And yet.

And yet, despite all that, something — or someone — keeps pulling us back in. Despite ourselves, we can’t quit altogether.

Even on those days and weeks when we don’t believe a word of it … we paradoxically still believe. We can’t help ourselves.

It’s a mystery.

My theory, which probably isn’t worth much, but it’s mine (unless I heard it somewhere else and have appropriated it, too), says a persevering faith isn’t something we can conjure up on our own. It’s God’s gift to us. It’s a manifestation of his grace.

We might think we’ve lost touch with him, but in truth he’s guiding us the whole way. We wander off; when the time is right, he tugs us back home. He’s always there, even when he’s absent.

Often it’s in those stark times of wayfaring and doubt and even temporary apostasy that we grow most.

We refine our beliefs, wrestle with our demons, decide what elements of our relationship with God we still hold dear. God’s helping us discard the rubbish in our souls in favor of a bit more clarity, a dab of greater insight.

Even if we live to be 90, we’re always on this meandering spiritual journey, making progress only to veer off onto a dead end, doubling back, dodging a cliff or two along the way, discovering a welcome, level, paved highway we’re sure we’ll walk on forever, then sooner or later falling into a ditch.

This is our destiny and our destination.