Religion is not a nagging parent, nor is it a report card keeping track of our achievements and failures and grading our performance. Religion is a refining fire, helping us get rid of everything that is not us, everything that distorts, dilutes or compromises the person we really want to be, until only our authentic selves remain.—Rabbi Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough
Often my thoughts about faith, about living simply and about loving my neighbors, slip into the report-card pattern. I congratulate myself on little right actions—some extra time taken for prayer, a trip taken by bike and not by car, a visit with someone whom I find particularly tiring. I blame myself for a very long list of little failings. I worry that I am not as devout or as sustainable or as kind as some other people I know. I even run a kind of credit-debit check in my head: I’ve been really careful about not using too much hot water, it doesn’t matter if I forget about turning the lights out; I listened to one person for an hour when I had things I would rather have done, and I gave a bunch of fresh vegetables to another person, so now I don’t have to deal with this person who wants my time and attention now.
Yet I know that sustainable living, neighbor-love and prayer, and all the little actions which embody them, are not unpleasant things I have to do to get credit for goodness. They are their own reward. Bicycling with a load is tiring, but it also gives me a chance to greet my neighbors, strengthen my muscles, enjoy the bird songs and the feel of the morning wind. Loving my neighbors can be frustrating, but it also brings closeness, teaches life lessons, and builds up mutual trust. Prayer sometimes feels like a sham or an endurance test on distracted days, but when I can let go of my illusions and sink back into prayer I find strength and joy, purpose and peace. All these practices bring me back to the presence of God, to the refining fire of the truth, and help me to grow into the person God calls me to be.