The Day of Small Loves
Once upon a time, my love for God was a vibrant, shining thing.
After growing up in a Taiwanese immigrant home as a rational-empiricist atheist, I became a Christian as a high school senior. The next fifteen years or so of my Christian life were largely “up and to the right,” as they say — growing in my knowledge of God, my experience of his love and presence.
Here’s a vignette from that season: my parents came to visit me during my first grad school stint (UC-Irvine, MSME '94); I was nervous, as my relationship with my dad was particularly tense at the time. My Inter Varsity chapter was in the midst of an exercise of praying for "ridiculous things,” and sensing God’s prompting, I asked if we could pray for my parents to become Christians that very week. My dad had kicked me out of the house for becoming a Christian, and throughout college had written me a series of devastating letters (10,000-word affairs, meticulously researched, with footnotes and bibliographies) shredding my new faith — so this was something of a stretch-ask. But that weekend, I had a series of impossible interactions with my dad, marked by a humility and openness I had never known in him, culminating in our sitting together on the steps of Le Meridien Newport Beach and praying for God to come into his life. It was unbelievable. My parents flew home the next day, and the celebration we had at Inter Varsity that night was an absolute orgy of love for God, of singing and laughter and gratitude and confidence.
"He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me." Through these years, love for God meant obedience: saying yes to his invitations to enter through a narrow gate into a good and beautiful life. It was imitation: coming to know him and becoming like him, e.g. in love for and identification with the poor. It was affection: delight in and gratitude to him for his care and goodness. It was dependent and humble, but also energetic. It was enthusiastic and intimate. It led me to dare greatly, to the mission field and to seminary, and to many costly decisions which I do not regret.
I miss those years.
The next fifteen years or so after that could be described as a long, downhill slide. Theological frameworks that had once interpreted the world (and others, and myself) for me stubbornly failed to encompass my later experience, and lost their power to explain and guide. Unanswered prayers and unmet expectations piled up and toppled over, as answered prayers evaporated in the rearview mirror (including my dad’s relatively short-lived conversion). I lost any sense of God’s presence, and almost all the content of my faith — as well as the sense of belonging to a spiritual community, where I lost standing with a rapidity that surprised me. I held on for years, until holding on felt less like faithfulness and more like dishonesty.
Then, in 2015, I discovered the Liturgists podcast and Imago Dei. Science Mike’s axioms about faith were a lifeline, and Imago was a place to explore reconstructing a spirituality without feeling like a total loser weirdo outcast (shoutout to our Lenten small group, and Formation Community!). For over a year in Formation Community, I used “Ground of Being, Ground of Dave” as a breath prayer, and meditated on "the world is a not-inhospitable place for me" as most of the content of my faith.
This was a helpful practice, but still left me struggling with feeling increasingly, even dangerously lonely. It seems that, for me anyway, "Ground of Being" and a "world not-inhospitable" constitute rather weak tea when it comes to feeling that I belong and am beloved, and they're not so hot as an object of love, either.
At my final Formation Community retreat last month, a few realizations coalesced for me: 1) Even though I no longer know that there is a personal, loving God who cares for me, I prefer the person I was when I did so believe — prefer how I was more generous, resilient, and gracious over my present narrowness, fragility, and small-heartedness. 2) Belonging is my core psychological need, above even being right or good. 3) I can embrace a model which I know is inaccurate, but which is nevertheless useful/helpful. What emerged from these realizations was the surprising sense that a pathway was open to me, back to a relationship with a personal God, with whom I could belong.
For a few years, I had felt locked out of an old house — a house still full of emotional resources, yet abandoned: the house where I used to be the son of a loving God. I now feel like the door is open, and I'm wandering gingerly through the rooms, turning lights back on, stoking up old fireplaces. There are rooms I won't go back into — rooms of excessive doctrinal certainty, of evangelical overconfidence expressed in a well-meaning aggressiveness — but the rooms where I can sit in front of the fire with a God who sees and understands me, and loves me, and with whom I can feel at home — this is a model I need, and can genuinely hold and operate within, without continually debunking it.
And so this is what love for God is for me, today: it's taking 10-30 minutes most mornings (often in front of an actual fireplace) to sit and thank God for his love, to receive a sense of care, safety, and belonging. It's memorizing and meditating on poems by Mary Oliver. It's journaling those moments when I feel like I am at home. It's slowly making my way through that old house, reinterpreting each of the rooms. It's smaller and less heroic than the love I once had, but Zechariah tells us not to despise the day of small things, does he not?
Dave is that 47-year-old Taiwanese guy who is married to Monica and dad to Sam and Nathan. He enjoys hiking, leading worship, and having unrealistically high standards. If you want to trade recitations of Mary Oliver, Rainer Rilke, or Robert Frost, Dave is your guy.