Friday, July 3, 2009

What If It Isn't True?

I sat on the back porch on a Sunday morning, an hour before church. All the strength was drained from my body and spirit. It was even hard to hold the phone to my lips as I whispered to my friend the secret I had been harboring from myself for years.

“I'm not sure I believe in Jesus.”

He didn't panic. There were no frantic arguments or pep talks. “You've been running from this for quite some time,” he observed. I agreed.

I see now that all the emphasis of the convictions I shared from the pulpit stemmed from the fear I had of my own doubts. If I spoke loud enough and exhausted myself with good works, maybe I could run from my questions.

I'm not sure why this moment caught me so unaware. I had been wrestling for a long time over the issue of unanswered prayers and unfulfilled promises from the Bible. I realized that I had been facing a thundering silence from God throughout most of a life I had spent working for him. So it should have been no surprise I would come to this conclusion.

But it was traumatic. What if none of this religious stuff was true?

Who was I if there was no Jesus?

More practically, since all I've ever done is work with churches how would I earn a living?

When I mentioned my doubts to those close to me, they were frightened. My wife couldn't talk about it. Friends tried to help. “I just don't allow myself to be tempted by even asking such questions,” one said with the same emphasis I always had when I was running from my doubts.

But this particular friend, like I said before, didn't panic. He prayed for me over the phone that morning. Then he drove for two hours to spend the afternoon with me. Our conversation helped me put things together enough to help me function in the days to come.

That was ten years ago. Did I get my faith back? No. Not like it was.

I admit that I sometimes miss the certainty of my old faith. In some ways I was a better speaker—more dynamic with clever phrases. Nowadays, I have a lot more ambivalence in my messages. More questions, fewer answers. But the gaps in understanding don't scare me anymore.

It bothers some people. Where are the answers they need? Why don't I give them more reassurance? Why can't I shore up that supposedly solid rock upon which they stand?

Recently, an older gentleman, a longtime teacher in his church came to me and told me how troubled he was about his questions. Some things in the Bible just didn't seem to be so. How do we reconcile God's severity in the Old Testament with the gentleness of Jesus? And what about those promises that don't seem to be true?

I loved him for sharing with me like this. And I told him I had the same kinds of questions. “I'm sorry that I have no clear answers for you.”

He relaxed and said even hearing that made him feel better. Then we continued a long and interesting discussion.

Here is where I've become the better pastor. I can let people face their doubts in safety. And perhaps I can show them that life won't fall apart if they have to adjust what they believe and live with unanswered questions.

6 comments:

  1. I have often wondered if preachers believed what they preached. And how could they? I used to think that they had access to knowledge of God that I didn't. Then I realized that almost everyone comes by their convictions the same way. They learn it from someone else. They have no more means of being certain of the truths they preach than I have. I wondered too if a preacher came to disbelieve would he continue. You have, no doubt, heard of Mother Theresa's struggle with doubt.

    You can find me here:
    http://ironymous.blogspot.com/

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  2. These questions are quite reasonable and it's a shame that we are shamed into not asking them.

    I would agree that the convictions of my family and my teachers were passed onto me. However, after my crisis, i would have to say that my thoughts and convictions are mine and I take full responsibility for them.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Peace,

    Clergy Guy

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  3. Beautiful thoughts, very moving for me to read. I can definitely relate, not as one in paid ministry but I was a lay leader when I went through asking those questions, did not find anyone who could speak to me like your friend for maybe a year. It is hard to explain, hard for people around me to understand about "getting faith back" these thoughts, "Did I get my faith back? No. Not like it was." Because "not like it was" can seem like "not at all" to them, and of course there is a real fear of it becoming (or remaining) "not at all."

    Ever read this?
    http://www.reallivepreacher.com/rlparchive/preachersstory

    Part 3 still breaks me up. Sounds like you've made it to part 4 in your story.

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  4. ATTR, thanks for the realivepreacher site. I really resonated with his story.

    You have your own story and you are on your own journey. I appreciate your integrity and courage.

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  5. I actually had a mild crisis the first time I internalized the story about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. I knew the story, everyone does, but for some reason one time when I read it, I stopped in my tracks. Jesus doubted and was grieving, it seemed, for the sacrifice Our Father was leading him toward, in fact the very reason he had walked the earth at all.
    It didn't bother me when Jesus was tempted in the desert. He prevailed and he did in the garden, but it was the doubt that crippled me for a long time - maybe it is still there, I just don't address it.
    Knowing the existence of Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit, for me, is like knowing I am a woman. It is just a fact. I can trust it without looking, but knowing that the Apostles claim he had doubts shook me to the core.
    So, my faith is not intellectualized. It is felt.
    Amazing post.
    DM

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  6. DM, as I get older and more at ease with all my questions, I find it comforting to see where Jesus had doubts, got hungry and thirsty, was agitated and tired, and acted annoyed with his disciples.

    The human side of Jesus is every bit important as the divine side.

    BTW, anyone who grows has their times of doubt, so you're in good company.

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