Working out with God

Hello friends, and welcome back to another semester at Swarthmore College, another semester of the Phoenix, and another semester of my column, A Still Small Voice. I use my space here to comment on my religion and on spirituality on campus, in the media and in our culture at large, as well as to document and reflect on some of my personal religious experiences. This week’s column is mostly the latter.

As some of you may know, I come from a basically secular family. We don’t go to church and my parents and grandparents are deeply skeptical about “organized religion”. This wasn’t a problem for me at all until I got back from Swarthmore and found myself facing a roughly three-month void in my spiritual schedule. Here at Swat, I’m inundated with religious life. Last semester, for example, I found myself at two Bible studies, a large fellowship meeting, a worship band practice and a meeting for worship at the Friends Meetinghouse almost every week. Additionally, I attended nearly every interfaith event I possibly had time for, as well as occasional lectures sponsored by the Religion Department. Clearly, I was a fanatic. My life revolved around exploring my faith, pushing the boundaries of understanding divinity, and opening my heart to God’s wisdom.

Back in the Boro, there were none of these events. I have no home church, and only one of my hometown friends is religiously convicted. As I busied myself with the work of summer — chasing summer camp kids around the playground, wandering through the woods, and playing music with friends — I found myself focused less and less on my developing spirituality. Late one night in mid-August, I tossed and turned in bed until midnight. At that point I realized that I’d not taken time to pray seriously or read Scripture all summer! I got out of bed, wandered into the living room, and read from the Bible and prayed for nearly two hours.

It might have just been the late hour, but I found myself struggling to digest any of the material. Verses I’d delighted in dissecting just weeks prior now seemed more like reading code. Eventually, I felt like I couldn’t do any more work. I went back to bed and finally fell asleep.

At that moment, I realized something pretty profound: I was way out of shape! Spiritually, I’d atrophied to the point where I could barely pick through a verse. I realized how disconnected I’d felt from divinity and how God’s voice — the still small voice this column’s named after — had grown quieter until its once steady hum was now a barely audible scratching. It seems to me that, like muscles in the physical body, the spiritual muscles that we work out when we pray, study texts or participate in worship activities can also stiffen and shrink if they aren’t regularly and rigorously stretched. These activities might be called “spiritual practices” for a reason.

Since my experience on that August night, I’ve turned up the intensity of my private devotion, committing myself to pray at least daily, spend more time in the Word and absorb sermons or messages from preachers in diverse denominations. I’m back on campus now, and I look forward to taking advantage of the myriad spiritual experiences that my tradition has to offer. As a Christian, I have access to small group Bible studies and large group fellowship meetings courtesy of Swarthmore Christian Fellowship: InterVarsity, Pizza and Parable Bible study with Swarthmore Progressive Christians, weekly Mass with Newman Catholic Fellowship and plenty of local Sunday morning services to choose from.

Now, I won’t sugarcoat it. My spiritual life is way easier because I’m a Christian. It’s easy to be a Christian in the United States, and the College does not support the spiritual growth of students of subordinated faiths to the extent it should. It’s hard to be Muslim in the United States, hard to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Sikh or Jewish or Wiccan or of any faith less popular than Christianity. However, I would encourage all students, regardless of their faith or philosophy, to seek out individuals who think like you or that might be interested in learning more about your tradition. That community, that fellowship, is absolutely critical to working out your spiritual muscles — I felt the cost of that solitude this summer. As the saying goes, “you can’t be a Christian on your own”.

If you’re interested in finding Swatties who believe like you do, or at least have a similar background if not similar beliefs, please contact one of your Interfaith Interns — Zachary Arestad (zaresta1@swarthmore.edu) or Sanaa Ali-Virani (salivir1@swarthmore.edu), or Swarthmore’s Religious and Spiritual Life Adviser, Joyce Tompkins (jtompki1@swarthmore.edu). The Swarthmore Interfaith Center is committed to promoting and supporting religious practice and dialogue between people of every faith and philosophy. Check out our Facebook page for information on all existing groups and contact us for support chartering a new one.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” — 1 Corinthians 12:12

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