The brilliant theologian Frederick Buechner once wrote “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” With that quote in mind then I guess you could say that I have ants in my faith filled pants. I don’t know where my recent crisis of faith came from but if I’m honest with myself then I have to say it’s there.
I’m not leaving my faith behind; I’m just in a moment of questioning. In my experience, God honors our doubts about Him and becomes clearer in our moments of darkness if we will just acknowledge that we are indeed in a time of doubt. They are nothing to be ashamed of. Today I have a cold and my back hurts but something just feels off so I guess I’ll write what’s on my mind. In spite of all I’ve been raised to believe, sometimes I feel like God is an absent father. I feel at times like a child desperately trying to find Him, while He seems to be conspicuously absent.
Maybe it’s just me but lately in communal worship gatherings it seems like we speak of God as if He isn’t there. I feel like I’m speaking if Him in that way right now as I type. Our communal prayer times feel like sermons with our eyes closed. Sometimes it feels like our prayers to God are actually prayers prayed to man, trying to convince others that God is near. If we really are addressing God in our prayer times, then we are trying to convert Him to Christianity or building Him up with bumper sticker slogans about faith.
Maybe subconsciously we think that God needs to be converted. After all, God the Father has been around far longer than the concept of a Messiah Christ who existed before all time. For most of the Old Testament there’s no concept of a devil in the way contemporary pop-Christianity envisions him. All things, both good and evil, come from God in the OT and that is very problematic for me. Since we have such an ancient faith, why are we so against interacting with people of other ancient faiths? For the most part, any effort in American churches to have a more than one-sided dialogue about other religions will get you silenced in a hurry. It will probably will make your faith suspect as well and get you a spot on the prayer request list as a lost person at the next meeting of the ladies Bible study.
Does anyone else see the insecurity in behaviors like this? Isn’t there a need to question things that we find ourselves insecure about? Why are we so scared of talking to people who aren’t Christians but who do share our common Abrahamic faith? Why can’t we have true and generous dialogue with people who practice the faiths of Bábism, Bahá’í, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari, Mandaeans, Sabians, Samaritanism, and Unitarian Universalism. There are many more religions in the world, but these are ones that share our Abrahamic descent.
Creating dialogue with people of other faiths doesn’t mean that we are going to join up and become card-carrying members of their religion. One major problem I see is that many evangelical Christians are only interested in having a dialogue with non-Christians if they can find some leverage to convert them. When did following Christ mean that we can only have relationships with others as long as we can convert them? Doesn’t this outlook dehumanize them? Doesn’t it make us see non-Christians as little more than targets to aim our message at? Shouldn’t we care about them as people first and foremost even if they never believe Jesus is Lord in the way we do?
I’m not saying that we can’t share our faith with them when the opportunity presents itself. Faith is an integral part of our lives as Christians and we should never try to disconnect that from who we are. I just believe that God the Holy Spirit is the one who does the convincing and the changing of a person’s heart and mind. Thomas Merton, one of my faith heroes, was led to Christ by a Hindu gentleman who pointed him away from Hinduism and toward a little book by Thomas à Kempis called “the Imitation of Christ.” Apparently our God isn’t threatened by people of other faiths, and in fact uses them to bring people to Himself.
Well, enough digression about inter-faith dialogue. I should get back to my original reason for writing this blog with is my current crisis of faith. I have these crises from time to time. Maybe this time it stems from the fact that I’ve made God is too small or that we in the church have made Him too small and I’m just having trouble finding Him. Is God really NOT in a box or He has tucked Himself inside of a box that we have imagined to be entirely too small. There I go talking about Him like He isn’t there again but even as I write my doubts about Him I get a sensation that He is here with me in the doubting.
I’ve had these moments of doubt before. About four and a half years ago I completely renounced my Christian faith for a couple of days. This made it very difficult to serve the church as a youth pastor and music minister, but let me give some context. My first marriage was crumbling and no matter how hard I prayed I couldn’t piece it back together. I was broken through and through. I was angry at my ex-wife, I was angry at the world, and I was angry at myself. The only one whom I felt safe directing my anger at was God since He was the only One with shoulders big enough to take the beating I was about to lash out.
At one point I stood alone in the sanctuary of my church pointing at the cross angrily shouting something like this at God. (Be warned the language is a little strong in places but it’s honest.)
“I gave you everything. I didn’t want to be a pastor. I hate being a pastor and I would never have done it if You hadn’t called me. Following You has ruined my marriage and my life. All these stupid rules about how you can’t drink and you can’t cuss and you can’t go to movies and you can’t be human are crazy. You’ve ruined everything you Son of a Bitch. If you were here right now I would crucify you myself. I don’t believe in You and I will not follow You anymore. You get someone else to do this job”.
I went back and sat in my office after that prayer. It’s weird to call it prayer but it was indeed prayer. It was a strange mixture of agonized sweat and tears mixed with numb ambivalence. In those few days I only told one person what I had done. Imagine that, I was a pastor and I didn’t believe in or want to follow God anymore. There was such a feeling of uncertainty and mental conflict in my life. I guess that’s what a crisis of faith is, an uncertainty about things that are supposed to be certain.
The odd thing was that a couple of days later I found myself alone in that sanctuary again crawling on my hands and knees toward the altar. I told God how sorry I was and that I knew I was wrong to say all those things to Him. I still didn’t like being a pastor but I was glad to do it if He had called me there. I told Him that I knew He didn’t cause my life to crumble or my marriage to fail. I just cried and sat with Him in the silence for a while.
I know it wasn’t a physical presence but in my spirit it felt like God was holding me tightly to his chest whispering in my ear: “It’s okay. No one else could have taken the beating you gave me. It didn’t hurt. I know you love me. I love You.” Ironically, in those few days when I renounced my faith, I experienced His closeness in the most real and profound way I ever had.
Fast forward to the present. Why the crisis of faith now? My heart has healed. As Andrew Peterson says, “The aching may remain but the breaking does not”. Life is very good. God brought a beautiful, funny, intelligent, and spiritual woman into my life who has become my wife. I have publishers interested in my music. I feel like my songwriting is getting better and more seasoned. I’m blessed beyond belief. Why now?
I’m not sure where this doubt is taking me but I know that I can rest on the places I stood in the past. I think God may be working something new in my life and in the life of those around me. I can’t even pretend to know what that is. I’ve been serving on staff at Springfield First Church of the Nazarene for 10 years now and I feel like there is a holy restlessness in me saying that more needs to be done, I just don’t know what that is.
Is God leading me through some new door? I don’t know, but if this sense of His absence is here because He wants me to follow Him somewhere, then I certainly want to go, even though I’m comfortable here. Maybe I’m too comfortable and that’s the problem. I’m not in despair, I’m just seeking to figure out these ants in my pants that Buechner spoke of. Lyrics by the late great singer Rich Mullins come to my mind today and I puzzle over things of faith.
“All I really need to know Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time.
We can’t see what’s ahead and we can not get free of what we’ve left behind.
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret.
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get”.
–Rich Mullins (Hard To Get)
After reading over those words by Rich again I think I will just take the stance of Job and place my hand over my mouth. Lord, take me to a place where I am lost enough to let myself be led. But just once, could You be clear and unambiguous about it? Probably not, but I love you anyway.