Confessions of an Amateur Believer

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An entertaining collection of inspirational, gritty, challenging writing that follows an unwilling atheist's first encounters with God, her ensuing struggles and progress as a reluctant believer, and her ultimate discovery of contentment and rest in faith.

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Overview

An entertaining collection of inspirational, gritty, challenging writing that follows an unwilling atheist's first encounters with God, her ensuing struggles and progress as a reluctant believer, and her ultimate discovery of contentment and rest in faith.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Kirk came to Christian faith kicking and screaming after years as a lapsed-Catholic atheist, but once in the fold she embraced her newfound relationship with God with passion. That passion, however, wasn't all happiness and love. Kirk's candor, humor and sarcasm show us a woman who struggles to understand how God would have her live each day as a parent, teacher, wife and daughter. "My own experience of getting to know him has been more about moving toward him-and often away from him-through conflict and questioning and struggle," she says. Her 33 brief essays are divided into four sections: Meeting God, Struggling, Progress and Rest. Kirk's thoughts on concepts such as servanthood, intercessory prayer, fairness and priorities glitter with humor and honesty. On a deeper level, her ruminations shine with a heart-deep knowledge that God understands her struggles, and that her trials are made easier by knowing him. This is a lovely book both for Kirk's fine writing and for her search for God that encompasses all readers. "If, in the darkness, I stop worrying to listen-which I often don't, or can't, or won't-I hear God's voice under the narrative of my own worries and accusations: That's enough." (Jan. 2) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780785220411
  • Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/2/2007
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.42 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Patty Kirk is the author of Confessions of an Amateur Believer. She is Writer in Residence and an adjunct associate professor of English at John Brown University. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas and has taught and/or studied in Berlin, Beijing, Hong Kong, Boston, New Orleans, and Irvine, California. She and her family live on a farm in eastern Oklahoma.

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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

Often, when people speak about their faith, they describe it as a settled thing. A thing acquired, sometimes on a certain date, and utterly static. Not merely "once saved,
always saved," as my husband liked to hope when he met me as an atheist who had once believed, but "once saved, always the same," having the same exact faith as what they started out with their entire lives. Part of me envies that sort of certainty. Such faith journeys from conversion to death, as I envision them, follow a clean, sure trajectory reminiscent of the lives and deaths of
Catholic martyrs in a book I had as a child. Never faltering in the faith. Never questioning. Always obedient. Their eyes cast ever skyward in the woodcut illustrations that accompanied the text.

Other faithful men and women of scripture, though, seem just the opposite. Peter. John the Baptist in prison, about to be beheaded. Mary and Martha when their brother dies. Jesus' own mother, who experienced his divine heritage firsthand and called on him for miracles, but at the height of his ministry went with his brothers "to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind'" (Mark 3:21). Most heroes of faith, it seems to me, spend as much time wandering away from God as they do returning to him. And many great believers balk at the crucial moment, often late in their lives, when one would think their faith as mature and large as it will ever be. Theirs is a jagged faith trajectory at best.
Like Jacob--like me--they must wrestle with God and with themselves for a long time before they can receive their blessing.

I have met people who have told me that they became believers in childhood, and I have always thought, Who doesn't believe in
God in childhood ? In the force that created green and water and dogs and sunlight? In those invisible qualities of love, justice,
order, and forgiveness? Arms to run to when we are hurt. The confidence that we are right, or wrong, in our actions. The daily rituals of getting up and being fed and napping and playing and going to bed again. Being heard and paid attention to. Being loved, no matter what.

Ideally, we see glimpses of God's essential qualities in our parents and in the life they provide for us. But even in the absence of these natural sources of nurture--if you will allow me to indulge one of my deepest hopes about who God is--even the most neglected and abused of children see God, if only in increments of time too fleeting for those around them to acknowledge, in the love acts of some kind friend or acquaintance. God's invisible presence is unmistakable--it must be--in the bleakest of settings,
if our senses are motivated, as the senses of children are, by dependence and need.

Unbelief comes later. Beset by troubles, or else blinded to our fundamental need and dependence by ease and by our increasing ability to take care of ourselves, some of us lose sight of God. Or we forget to look for him. As we do when a loved one dies, we eventually become accustomed to days and nights without the one we loved and gradually forget the contours of a face we once knew with our eyes closed. Soon, mourning itself is a distant memory, replaced by the more urgent activities of daily life. As time passes, we struggle to remember the person at all and carry with us only a vague sense of loss.

That is unbelief, I think. The nagging absence of a remembered face. Sometimes a certain smell or touch or sound we associate with the one we have lost reminds us. Sometimes, in the night, we dream the person live and real again. But, our practical selves wake us up and convince us of what seems, in loss, to be the only reality: we are alone. Unbelief, in my experience, is much less a conscious rejection of God than a sense of abandonment and loss.
A sense of our own aloneness. And the certainty that no effort on our part can restore to us the one we loved. The prayer of the unbeliever--Lord, help my unbelief !--is the voice of hope from beneath our loneliness and self-made comforts. It is the seed out of which true faith grows.

But the faith of many of our spiritual heroes--Moses, Jonah,
Mary, Peter--does not always arc upward from that first moment of belief to godliness. Often, we progress only to fall back, and our biggest spiritual steps "higher up and deeper in," in the words of
C. S. Lewis, are often out of pits into which we have fallen, again and again, along the way. That's progress. Falling back into moments of unbelief to rediscover God, then picking oneself up and proceeding forward, ever forward to the safety of his fatherly arms and into the genuine rest he promises his beloved children.

This book explores how, having begun to believe as a child and lost sight of God for half a lifetime, I came not only to recognize him again but, by struggling with scripture and my own habits of

unbelief, to acknowledge and celebrate his active participation in my life.

The first section, "Meeting God," follows my initial journey out of unbelief into faith. I came to that first encounter with a history that played a crucial role in my ultimate ability to recognize God's authority and power. My struggle, however, had only just begun,
and the chapters in the second section, "Struggling," describe my ensuing faith wrestling. In the third section, "Progress," the wrestling continues, but in these chapters I experiment with my new habits of trusting in the one who comes to explain everything to us and finding answers to many lifelong questions. The chapters in the final section, "Rest," explore the most essential gifts of God:
an end to the striving and sweating and questioning that have been our lot since the fall. We will drink milk and wine we didn't have to go to the store to buy. We will love one another, perfectly, in spite of ourselves. We will truly and totally enjoy pursuing God's will over our own. We will rest.

Chapter One - The Faith of a Child

Unlike most of the people I go to church with these days, I
wasn't always much of a believer. Although as a child I
attended church weekly and did believe in God, I never heard of concepts like having a "personal relationship" with Christ or just giving my troubles to Jesus. My relationship with Jesus
Christ was, at best, respectful but remote, like my relationships with relatives I knew only from my parents' stories. As I was growing up,
my troubles took me not into the arms of God but ever further from the faith of my childhood, and I spent a big part of my adult life unable to believe at all.

I grew up one of six kids in a Catholic family. I was baptized not long after I was born, and we attended church every Sunday,
where I listened to three readings from the Bible weekly: one from
Psalms, one from the Epistles, and one from the Gospels. I made my first communion when I was six or seven. At twelve I was confirmed in my faith by reciting my baptismal vows and adding the name of a saint to my other names.

Polycarp. I had to fight the nuns and get permission from our
Monsignor to use a male name. I chose Polycarp, I explained to
Msgr. Dziodosz, not just because his feast day was my birthday but because I liked his story in our family's Little Pictorial Lives of
Saints. Faced with martyrdom unless he cursed Christ, Polycarp replied, "Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?" In my child's mind, Polycarp was saying, "Well, I've followed God for so long that it hardly seems worthwhile to change now." The strange pragmatism of this statement of faith struck me as funny.

My family ate fish sticks on Fridays when I was young, and we carried in our station wagon a cross-shaped wooden box that twisted open to reveal a bottle of holy water, a white silk stole, and a rolled up sheet of paper with instructions on how to perform an emergency baptism. Sometimes, when my parents drove us places,
I fantasized about coming upon an accident and watching my father crouch beside a dying person to read the words on the paper, getting spots of blood on the stole.

This was in the sixties, before the modernizations of the Second
Vatican Council had really sunk in. In those days, my sisters and I
wore organdy dresses poufed out with stiff slips to church and lace caps bobby-pinned to the tops of our heads. My older sister Sharon told funny stories about the nuns at a parochial school she had attended for awhile when I was just little. I coveted a soft focus painting of Jesus praying that night on Gethsemane that Sharon had above her bed--the sky the inkiest midnight blue above what
I thought of as the cheery lights of Bethlehem twinkling below.

My dad told stories, too. Of stealing the communion wine in his altar boy days. Of a gigantic nun who punished him by lifting him off the ground by that especially tender hair that grows at the temple. Of his uncles shouting, "Jaysus, Mary, and Joseph." Of snow and knickerbockers and growing up in Brooklyn, which were all part of my Catholic heritage, as it seemed to me.

On Christmas Eve some years, my parents took us to midnight
Mass. Imagine it. You're six or seven or eight years old and have never stayed up past nine o'clock, not for any reason, and certainly not on Christmas Eve, that night of nights when presents appear out of nowhere and the air itself quivers with carols. You were so excited when they put you to bed that you couldn't sleep for a long time, but now, seconds later it seems, your parents get you and your siblings up out of the warm covers and thrust you into your church clothes. Nobody talks much. It is the middle of the middle of the night, and the world is darker and quieter than it has ever been in your remembrance. And then you're riding in the back of the station wagon, and then you're in the cold church, waiting.

Your mother or father gives your siblings and you each a little candle from a box at the end of the pew. It has a paper apron around it that your mother whispers is there to protect your hand from drips of wax. And then the lights go out, and the whole church is dark except for a leafy crèche at the altar: a Hawaiian-looking house surrounded by palm fronds. And you sit in the dark, waiting.

Soon there is a shuffling noise from behind, and you crane around to see. First, some altar boys appear, some of them only your age or younger, carrying gigantic candles on poles. Then,
behind them, the priests, swinging censors wafting the exotic smoke of frankincense and myrrh. It is a fabulous smell that collects in your nose and sinks to your lowest places and stays there.
Days later your closet will smell of that night.

The priests wear white vestments and Christmas-colored stoles,
and the Monsignor has on his magenta hat with the pompom,
and they all look old fashioned, somehow, like Santa Clauses from

an ancient book. Then your father or your mother lights your candle and your sisters' and brothers' candles, and then the whole church is filled with the glow and smell of candles burning, and everyone sits in the unfamiliar light and the silence and waits.
Finally, the priest starts the mass, and you sing carols, and everyone files past the crèche for communion.

At that time, I knew this about God: He was real. Although he lived in heaven, he was everywhere too. He knew me and heard me and could see me every moment of the day. He could see into my very thoughts. He had a son who was born in a Hawaiianlooking house surrounded by farm animals and shepherds and his mother and father. The son was real, too. Even though he was later killed on a cross, he came alive again and then went to heaven, where he still is, and he knew me just as his father did.
And because of this, the ghost of him lived in me, and someday I
would die and go to heaven where God and Jesus were and live there with them forever.

My faith as a child was, in other words, not much different from my evangelical Christian faith now. I believed in God and in his son, in his son's death and resurrection, and in my own resulting salvation from death. I wasn't very clear on the idea of sin, it's true, but I knew God loved me enough to forgive me and others for whatever we did wrong. I believed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I believed in eternal life.

In the intervening years, as an atheist, I married a Christian,
and he told me that this faith of my Catholic childhood was enough for him, even though I had abandoned it--or, as I felt, it had abandoned me. My childhood faith was enough, in fact, for
God himself, this silly little man who married me told me. "Once saved, always saved," he said--which, he explained to me, meant

it wasn't possible to lose true faith in God. It was a new concept for me. But I knew he was wrong. The faint glimmer of the faith
I had once had was not enough to fill me with the light of genuine belief. That much I knew. And without faith, I was not saved. I was not a Catholic. Not a Christian. Not going to heaven or anywhere else when I died, no matter what anyone told me.
And there was nothing I could do about it.

Faith, I somehow intuited, must come from outside of me. It must come from God himself, if it was true at all. And it didn't come, so it must not be true. That was my atheism.

Now, though, looking back, I wonder if my husband was right.
Perhaps, even as a child, I did believe enough to be clutched back to the bosom of God had I lain me down to sleep one night and died. Perhaps, if I had died some more realistic death--from a disease like the one that killed my mother or in an accident--perhaps even in those later years when I no longer felt loved or heard or even noticed by God, when my prayers disappeared into the black vacuum of night and I knew no one was listening, perhaps even then I would have survived death because of the almost forgotten faith of my childhood.

But for years, my husband's trite assurance that I believed, no matter what I thought, amused me. I knew what I knew. Or what
I didn't know. And even years later, when I became a believer again,
it seemed to be not from sin that I was saved but from that black night of my inability to believe. Not from hell and death but from the conviction that, contrary to what I believed as a child, I was not seen and known and heard when I prayed, I was not loved by God.

My years of atheism have made such an impression on me--the hope I hid from my friends, the longing for something beyond what I saw around me, my complete inability to pray--that I often forget about the faith of my childhood. And it may be merely a vestige of that child's worldview, made up of presents and nighttime ceremonies and the familiar Christmas decorations we took out of dusty boxes every year and arranged on the mantle, but the crux of
Christianity for me has never been the cross. Not then, not now.
Instead, it is God's first response to our hope and longing and frustrating blindness: the birth of his own son in our world. What matters most to me is that God had that son to begin with. And that he has other sons and daughters like me that he loves and doesn't want to be parted from. That he loves his children as I love my own daughters, only more so, with a hot, knowing, parental love that says, "Be who you are, but love me back. Only love me back."

I wear a certain necklace a lot, a silver baby on a chain. People
I know at school and church and sometimes even strangers come up to me and ask me what it means.

"Are you showing that you're against abortion?" they ask me.

So I explain that no, it's not an aborted baby but a baby Jesus.
I prefer wearing the baby Jesus to wearing a cross, I tell them.

If it's around Christmastime, they usually nod approvingly, but if it's Easter-time, I usually have to say a bit more. Actually, the baby is really a Mardi Gras king-cake baby that I bought in New
Orleans, a detail which could complicate my explanation somewhat because of the natural association of Mardi Gras with Lent and thus Easter, but I don't ever try to explain any of that.

Sometimes I consider this exchange an important opportunity to correct the macabre habit my fellow evangelicals have of bringing the crucifixion into every discussion of who God is, even discussions of the birth of Jesus. At my church's Christmas sing-along, someone invariably requests "Up from the Grave He
Arose" or "I Am Redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb!" Wearing

a baby on a chain is my attempt to get them to see the ghoulishness of such thinking.

But the bigger ministry of my little necklace is to myself.
Hanging from that chain is not the baby Jesus at all but me, one of God's daughters. A cherished daughter who once knew him a long time ago and, without thinking about it much, simply loved him back, as children do. A wayward daughter to whom he revealed himself almost from her birth but who nevertheless ran from him and refused to love him back, despite the almost constant evidences of his enduring love and protection. I am, mysteriously,
God's own baby girl. One of many children whom the
Father sent his Son into our burning world to carry home to him.

One year during midnight Mass, when the dark was suddenly lit up with candles and we were waiting in the blaze for the mass to begin, my baby brother Tim yelled into the holy silence, "And now everybody sing 'Happy Birthday' to me!!"

The silence deepened for a second or two with my family's embarrassment, then Msgr. Dziodosz boomed from the altar his deep laughter. Exactly like Santa Claus. And then everyone else laughed too.

Relevant and cited scriptural passages: Luke 2:1-20.

Other references:
John Gilmary Shea. Little Pictorial Lives of Saints. 1878.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2007

    Great writing, great insights

    I loved this book. It doesn't hurt that Kirk is an outstanding writer reading her is effortless and I found it tough to put her book down. But more important, I heard the 'click' of recognition and truth frequently as I galloped through it. For instance, she talks about the kinds of longings expressed in contemporary Christian songs these days, longings that evoke 'cozy firesides, gazing at each other, asking no questions' ... and contrasts these warm-and-fuzzy emotions with the 'love wrestling ... hard questions and paradoxical answers' she finds in the Bible and in older hymns. (Her example: 'prone to wander,' presumably from 'Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.') In just a few paragraphs, she explained why I find myself reaching for hymn collections these days while my CCM CDs gather dust. Another thing I really liked about this book is that Kirk is so refreshingly honest about herself. One example: 'This time, though, after smugly reflecting that I don't really think that much about money...' Another: 'I am ashamed that I always believe I'm right and everyone else is wrong.' And then there's what she says about her prayer life and about ruing vs. repenting. These are some of the same things I struggle with, and it is a relief to read about another Christian's experiences. Another thing: She writes about everyday events and issues, some of which she loses sleep over. It was with a smile of recognition that I read her description of her middle-of-the-night fretting over the need to back up her computer ('I made a few rules about cut off dates. Nothing older than a year, unless it's my own writing. Or unless it's really important and I just know I'll forget it. Or unless ... It was no use. The more I thought of it, the more tangled my mind got, and the less likely I was to fall back asleep.') How nice to know I'm not the only one who engages in this sort of 3 a.m. mental wheel-spinning. Kirk also does a lovely job of analyzing various Bible passages, from Ruth and Amos to Matthew and the epistles of John, and applying the lessons therein to her life - to our lives, really. These examples may seem trivial -- but the cumulative effect is, in my opinion, like spending an afternoon or two or three with your best friend after a separation of 20 days or 20 years. I've never met Patty Kirk, but I already feel like I've known her forever. Which is why I'm so looking forward to her next book.

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