A few years ago, over breakfast at Cora’s, a colleague for whom I have great respect used a phrase to describe herself that challenged me deeply, and nudged me down a path of learning and growth that has changed me. Speaking about her own spiritual life, she said she’d been living as a “functional atheist”. She continued to teach and preach about faith in God, but did not feel close to God, or that God was involved in her daily life.
I understood. For me, faith had moved from being a matter of the heart, and a way of living, and making every-day decisions, to a dry, intellectual exercise. When I considered God, it was more the idea of God, than the presence of God in my life.
The Bible stories I have been reading lately are been about people who are anything but “functional atheists”. Prophetic figures like Elijah, and Elisha, and Jesus responded to God’s call to leave behind their old lives, to travel into the wilderness, trusting that their basic physical needs would be met. Elijah lived in a ravine, drank his water from a brook, and ate bread brought to him by ravens twice a day. John the Baptizer lived in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Jesus had his desert time, during which he fasted, and told the tempter that we do not live by bread alone.
Later on, Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs, with only the clothing on their backs, and a message about God’s love in their hearts: "When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.’ ”
These holy ones lived on the edge of existence, in a border place between life as we try to understand and control it, and life in the huge realm of God, where all is mystery, and we recognize that we do not really understand or control anything. They depended upon God for their very survival.
We do not always have to travel to a physical place, to find ourselves on the border between the known and the unknown, the safe and the wild, the sensible and the mysterious. Events in our lives, and in the lives of those we care for, can bring us to a time of wilderness, a time of searching- a time when life as we have known it no longer holds together, and we have to travel in a desert for a while, before we can see a new liveable place on the horizon.
The lives we build, and the things we take for granted can fall apart, and be taken from us. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods are dramatic examples, but the same eventual deterioration of all that we have happens with the passage of time. Prophets and other spirit-filled people are a blessing to us, because they challenge us to look for more in life than what seems secure and comfortable.