Doing theology, finding grace

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” ~ Romans 8:18

Theology, at its most simple, is reflecting on God’s activity in our lives and discovering that the grace of God is already present with us. The first followers of Jesus enjoyed uplifting moments like feeding the five thousand, and they knew dark ones, like Good Friday. Over the next few decades, those disciples looked back to all the moments and saw that God was with them, in Jesus. We have the New Testament because those early followers did theology, reflecting on God’s presence in the good and difficult times.

Perhaps you have found the same? My wife and I certainly have.

For example, fourteen years ago, we heard God call us out of our former denomination. Though we didn’t know what the future held, we made the leap of faith. God provided temporary work driving deliveries for an importing company. While there were no benefits, the pay covered our mortgage while allowing me to support my pregnant wife and continue seminary studies.

We saw God again over the next months. Occasional headaches were joined by nausea on Christmas Eve. Since I’d already seen a neurologist for the headaches and gone to my GP for the nausea, I wondered if I needed glasses. I saw an optometrist and she noticed blood behind my eye. She sent me straight to the emergency room. We spent that New Year’s Eve getting tests done and seeing doctors. It was surreal, but as we listened to the waiting room count down to 2004, we heard the doctor say, “Mr. Bellsmith, you have a brain tumor.”

God was there. I remember my first reaction was a peace “that passes understanding,” followed by a deep assurance that God would take care of my wife and our unborn child.

Within a week, I’d had brain surgery and been diagnosed with a rare and completely manageable condition. The worst-case scenario had just happened, and God showed us grace through friends, family, nurses and the “still small voice.”
Two weeks later our daughter was born. I experienced God through my wife as she juggled my recovery with her own from a C-section, in addition to caring for our newborn.

During that time I couldn’t drive or work, so we used our credit cards to subsidize our expenses. Thank God we had the credit to do so. I saw God present in a family member who helped with our mortgage. God was there in friends who came to shovel the snow. And, of course, in the cooing and snuggling of our baby girl whose name means “healer.”

Within a few more months, God opened a door for a new position within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, assisting a minister. So we sold our home and purchased a new one in our new church’s community. The Reformed understanding of God and Presbyterian polity helped me feel right at home. God had given us both a new congregation, and a new faith tradition.

However, over the next five years, there were moments when I felt the legacy of that illness. I worked full time and helped raise a family, while continuing my seminary studies at Knox College. I made enough to service student loans and some other debt, much of it leftover from my illness. We were living, as so many do, from pay cheque to pay cheque. But we were living, and I was grateful.

Then one cold winter, managing the debt became much more difficult. We noticed water staining on the ceiling and professionals confirmed the issue was condensation. The vents for our flat-roofed house had been covered over, trapping the warm, moist air until it condensed on the underside of the cold roof. It dripped onto the ceiling drywall. Where there was water, there was likely mold. It would all have to be replaced. We wondered how we were going to pay for it? The only help we could find again came from credit cards. God’s grace was present as family and friends helped with rebuilding. The repair work was done in a summer.

The next winter, the staining came back. The contractor returned and did a quick fix of the drywall.
Then it happened again the next winter.

After more investigations, we discovered the contractor who had sprayed the foam had used a faulty product. The foam had cracked and the warm, moist air was still condensing on the cold roof. We pursued him, but he’d gone bankrupt. We felt trapped. We didn’t have the money for the repair, but we now had two young kids to protect. We couldn’t sell our house with this problem.

We talked with a credit counselor who advised bankruptcy. After a few weeks of praying over it, we made the difficult choice to give up our home.
As one might imagine, I felt like a failure. Like when I’d had surgery, we were in another dark night. In an article called “The eight myths of bankruptcy,” the CBC’s Tom McFeat writes, “Yes, there are deadbeats among the bankrupts. But the truth is that there are plenty of people who find themselves in desperate financial straits despite having initially had every intention of paying their creditors. A divorce, the death of a spouse, a severe illness or disability, the loss of a job can all propel even the most well-meaning consumer into debt hell.”

That was our experience.

But, even as we lost our RESPs and our home, we saw God working. For example, in this process we completed credit counseling and were given valuable tools on money management. We looked at our past decisions and made commitments on how we could do things differently in the future.

In the seven years since that happened, we’ve seen God working as we paid off the tens of thousands in student loans which weren’t included in the bankruptcy. We now know the grace of living debt free. We’ve built savings and are rebuilding RESPs for our kids. When emergencies happen, we can help ourselves rather than leaning on credit. We’re not done the rebuilding yet, but we’re on the right track. We see God in all of this.

Life brings seasons of joy and difficulty; we can’t change that. Earthquakes and hurricanes strike, and we can do nothing about it. But will we look for where God is working in whatever circumstance we find ourselves? The disciples reflected on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and we now have the New Testament conveying the great grace of God. As my wife and I reflect on our dark seasons, we give thanks for how God’s grace was present in it.

Whether we are in a season of joy or of difficulty, I invite you to reflect on where God is working. That’s how we do theology. That’s how we discover the grace of Immanuel, God with us.

Rev. Jeremy Bellsmith