Thursday, October 6, 2011

Faith in Doubt (Part 4): Loving God

A continuation of the series by Luke, Faith in Doubt.

Phase 4:  Love God
Even after three years of living like a pretty good Christian, I still thought of God as a distant force, like a world leader whose policies I respect.  I liked God, but I knew I did not love God. I knew what love was supposed to look like.  I had been married for several years, and during this time my first son was born, who continues to teach me about another kind of love that I think only parents can know. 

But this is not how I felt about God. Love springs from familiarity, yet never ceases to produce awe.  Mine was the awe you might feel for a celebrity.  Love inspires a kind of reckless loyalty.  My relationship with God was still on certain terms.

This time I have no idea when the change happened.  One day I woke up and realized that God was as familiar and present to me as my wife or son.  After a thousand tiny steps I loved God again. 

But how can you love a transcendent being you have never met?  I have always found it difficult describe this to those who have not experienced it.  The best I can say is that I have met him.  He’s around quite a lot actually.  I don’t hear voices or anything.  It is much more subtle than that.  But like I said before, he’s there and at this point it doesn’t make much sense denying it.

This love completely changed my attitude toward God.  For example, there have been times when I have defended God because of the threat to my identity.  Like if God isn’t real…then what am I going to do next!  I wasn’t defending someone I love, I was just defending the idea of God.  This God is nothing but a proposition, an intellectual crutch to hold up my dilapidated life. When people attack God now, there is something profane about it, and sad, yet completely unthreatening.  When I engage in this kind of discussion now, it is almost always for the benefit of another.  Otherwise, what would be the point?  God and I are just fine.  I no longer feel the need to argue for God’s existence for the same reason I do not try to argue for the existence of my mother.

As this love crept in, so did the desire to serve God in full-time ministry.  Since we were in high school, both Jaymi and I had felt sure that ministry was what God had called us to do, and that certainty was returning by the day.   I remember having a conversation with a pastor around this time, and he was trying to encourage me by saying that I didn’t have to be in ministry to serve God.  Many people are faithful servants even if it isn’t their profession.  I completely agree with this in principle, and there are some amazing people in my church community living it out, but this is not me.  As soon as my love for God returned I became restless.  I began to feel like I was wasting my life. 

As soon as we could manage it, I returned to school to get more training, and we began looking into how God could use our life.  For those of you who have read our blog before, you know that this drive is currently pointing us toward Africa, and if you want the rest of the story you will have to read what Jaymi has written about it. 

So what does it mean? 
I turned away from God with no intention of ever returning, and now I have gone from being a functional atheist to a future missionary.  I would not be here if God had not gone out of his way to bring me back.  I know I have not been very specific about why I am so sure that God was there (when he “punched me in the face”).  I do not think this is the appropriate place to describe a thing like that, but it was powerful.   Powerful enough that it has continued to define me as a person ever since. 

There are a lot of people in my life who have struggled with the same questions, but who were not given the kind of gift that God has given to me.  When their questions came up, God seemed silent.  I have no idea why he does this.  It frustrates me.  But I cannot deny the fact that he has been gracious to me, and I hope that he will be gracious to them too. 

By complete accident I came across a verse about a year or two ago.  This verse comes from a very sad book that was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Israelites were being forcibly resettled.  In effect there was no nation of Israel anymore, just her people.  A prophet named Jeremiah was mourning all that had been lost when he said this:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
The bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed
For his compassions never fail
They are new every morning
Great is your faithfulness
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait for him.” (Lam 3:19-24)

This verse is a summary of my life.  I often think of all that I wasted in those years, yet God did not abandon me.  He was faithful. He is still faithful.  I find new grace all the time.  I still feel doubt and confusion about a lot of things, and I certainly do not have satisfying answers to every question.  Yet what can I say now except “The Lord is my portion, therefore I will wait for him.” 

He is God.  He has been good to me.  And I trust him.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Faith in Doubt (Part 3): The Long Climb Back

A continuation of the series by Luke, Faith in Doubt.

So Sure, God exists.  Now I believed it.  I even believed that Jesus was God.  Yet there was no rush of joy in this realization.  This was not a happy moment.  I was quite miserable in fact.  God had intruded where he was not wanted, and now my life was a contradiction.  All of the questions and hurt that had led me away from my faith were still burning inside, yet I could not deny that Jesus was God.  Because of this, the phases of this four year journey might surprise you.  They certainly don’t match any salvation narratives I have ever heard.

Phase 1:  Hate God
When my journey began, I hated God.  He let people suffer and did not rescue them.  He called people to live to standards they could not achieve.  More than anything, I could not make sense of hell.  I could not make sense of God torturing people for eternity (More on this later).  It was around this time that we started going to church again, and the conflict in my faith was evident.  We would go for two weeks, then get frustrated and skip the next week, but by the fourth week we’d try again.  I remember one week walking out in anger in the middle of the service during a song that I still do not like.  I’m pretty sure we didn’t go back for a month. 

Phase 2:  Fear God 
During this phase I began to make some headway philosophically.  For example, some people draw a false dichotomy about God.  They say that either God is good and loving and everything I want him to be, or he doesn’t exist.  During this time I realized that the two things have nothing to do with one another.  Even if God is a jerk to us, he is still God and there is nothing we can do but serve him.  You cannot protest the Almighty.  God can do whatever he wants, and demand whatever he wants.  He’s God, so I had better pay attention. 

Phase 3:  Respect God
As I worked through my philosophical objections, I began to calm down emotionally.  By this point we had already settled back into our church, and I had begun studying the Bible again.  I felt like I was reading it with fresh eyes.  The texture and depth of both God and his people were leaping out at me, both from the text and in our church community.  All of this culminated in a realization: God is pretty cool.  He is not indifferent and inactive, he’s doing stuff all the time.  There may be a lot of crap going on in the world, but there is a lot of good too. 

Throughout these phases there is a theme that has continued to define my faith:   “Faith seeking understanding.”  I believe first, but I am still working out the details.  One thing that is difficult for many is that they do not want to accept Christianity until the big questions have been answered.  The problem is that you may never get there.  There are some questions that require faith and interaction with God in order to comprehend.  I realize this seems like backward logic, because it seems like we are creating bias in our beliefs prior to examining the questions themselves.  However, for me the answers came because the faith was there first.  I’m not sure if I ever would have made it this far if I hadn’t first believed in God. 

After this, there was one more phase that completed this process and sent our life onto a new trajectory.  (Coming Tomorrow)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Faith in Doubt (Part 2 cont'd): A Poem

A continuation of the series by Luke, Faith in Doubt.

During this confusing time I wrote this poem.  

I look at the sea
Do you know what I see?
No master’s canvas
No ruler’s order
Just water in Chaos

I turn to the stars
Do you know what I hear?
No slamming gavel
No compassionate cry
No angry horde
Vast Quiet

The stars are silent
The seas are brutal
Faint cries persist
Sometimes not so faint
No matter

The world has moved on
What use is a child’s fancy?
We are older now
As it ought to be
Yet, I am still troubled
My awe remains

Novelty is gold
Away from the light
But awe remains

Our games have ended
The afternoon is through
We’ve washed up for supper
In preparation for the night
But awe remains

How can the same spark light truth and madness?
Perhaps awe is madness

The stars are quiet
The seas are brutal
Faint cries heighten to horrific bellows
But no matter
Awe remains
My madness still speaks
It tells me to wait
It tells me that the show is about to start

Is it madness or is it truth?
Ask the stars and the sea
Because I really don’t know

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Faith in Doubt (Part 2): Getting Punched in the Face by God

A continuation of the series by Luke, Faith in Doubt.

When I first left the Church it felt like a weight had been cut off my back.  It felt like I was breathing fresh air for the first time in years.  My mind was free to consider ideas that I had been suppressing, and for the first time in a long time my heart felt free from the burden of guilt.  All of the demands that I thought were required of me vanished, and it felt good. Really good.  The experience was almost religious.  It felt like I had been saved from ignorance, and reborn into a new life.  I didn’t have to “capture” every stupid little thought that came through my head, and I didn’t have to believe that the God of the universe would be torturing people for all eternity.  I could just live my life, and learn, and try not to hurt anyone, and that felt like a fine life to me.  

I emphasize the joy of this moment because of what happened next.  It was unexpected and unwanted.  It was simple. 

God was there
Like a burning in my chest
Like a splinter in my mind
In defiance of everything I had built up against him
God was there, and I couldn’t deny it

You may believe me and you may not, but that’s the only sense I can make of it
In spite of all my philosophical objections
In spite of all the seeming inconsistencies
In spite of all the horrors that I now associated with God
He was there
He was God
And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. 

There is an analogy for God that I think is quite underutilized. 
God is like a punch in the face.
You may not see it coming, you may not understand why it happened, but you cannot deny that it happened. 
For me, the existence of God is not a proposition to be proved or disproved
Nor is the ministry of Jesus
God is a punch in the face
God is something so real that the rest of your life must bend to it

After this I began a long climb back to God.  I battled with God for several more years, but there was no longer any question about where I was going.  

(more coming soon)