Archives For Help My Unbelief

Religion TodayIt would’ve been easier for Peter to stay in the boat rather than to follow Jesus out onto the water.

Here’s a piece from Megan Hodder that I came across and I think resonates with the point I attempted to preach in my sermon on faith from this past weekend.

Last Easter, when I was just beginning to explore the possibility that, despite what I had previously believed and been brought up to believe, there might be something to the Catholic faith, I read Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. One passage in particular struck me.

Talking of the New Testament miracles and the meaning of faith, Weigel writes: “In the Catholic view of things, walking on water is an entirely sensible thing to do. It’s staying in the boat, hanging tightly to our own sad little securities, that’s rather mad.”

In the following months, that life outside the boat – the life of faith –would come to make increasing sense to me, until eventually I could no longer justify staying put. Last weekend I was baptised and confirmed into the Catholic Church.

Of course, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Faith is something my generation is meant to be casting aside, not taking up. I was raised without any religion and was eight when 9/11 took place. Religion was irrelevant in my personal life and had provided my formative years with a rolling-news backdrop of violence and extremism. I avidly read Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, whose ideas were sufficiently similar to mine that

I could push any uncertainties I had to the back of my mind. After all, what alternative was there to atheism?..

My friendships with practising Catholics finally convinced me that I had to make a decision. Faith, after all, isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, an assent to certain propositions; it’s a radical act of the will, one that engenders a change of the whole person. Books had taken me to Catholicism as a plausible conjecture, but Catholicism as a living truth I came to understand only through observing those already serving the Church within that life of grace.

I grew up in a culture that has largely turned its back on faith. It’s why I was able to drift through life with my ill-conceived atheism going unchallenged, and at least partially explains the sheer extent of the popular support for the New Atheists: for every considerate and well-informed atheist, there will be others with no personal experience of religion and no interest in the arguments who are simply drifting with the cultural tide.

As the popularity of belligerent, all-the-answers atheism wanes, however, thoughtful Christians able to explain and defend their faith will become an increasingly vital presence in the public square. I hope I, in a small way, am an example of the appeal that Catholicism can still hold in an age that at times appears intractably opposed to it.

help_my_unbelief-1This reflection on Doubt is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Director: photo-300x3001

I woke up at 4am this morning thinking about the conversation I had with my daughter last night before bed.  She had just returned from dance class and was worrying about auditioning and being selected into a prestigious dance school in the fall.  She has worked hard all year in dance, and has even scheduled her summer break with intensive dance classes to improve her performance.

I told her how proud I was of her dedication to her passion, and how much she has improved over the year.

She responded how it’s still not good enough, especially when compared to ‘Stacy’ (one of her dance friends).

There will always be a ‘Stacy’ out there for comparison, I said.  Focus on the enjoyment dance brings to you, and how much you have learned.

I could still see her frustration, so I tried another tactic.

What is your biggest fear?  Not getting into the dance school?

Face that fear now.

Pretend you just found out you were not selected.

How do you feel?  How are you going to deal with this?

If you can work through the doubts and fears now, then you can relax and know you will be okay.

As parents, we want to impart all the words of wisdom we know to teach and protect our children.  Unfortunately, many of life’s lessons are learned through one’s own experience.

This got me thinking about doubt and faith.  How it’s okay to have doubts about our beliefs.

Don’t push it aside; bring it on.

As I told my daughter to face her biggest fear about dance, I think God wants us to face our fears about our faith, or lack of.

Accepting our doubt = Accepting our humanity = Celebrating being created by God.

God uses our humanity to make us whole again through Christ.

We were created to be with God forever.  God’s covenant was promised in Eden, proclaimed to Abraham, and fulfilled in Christ.

Use doubt as a springboard to dive further into your faith.

help_my_unbelief-1I mentioned in my sermon for this weekend:

“being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.” 

I thought it an innocuous line, but it yielded me 3 queries in the line of worshippers leaving church and 4 other rapid response emails.

They all wanted to know what it is I struggle to believe.

What questions to which I’m still seeking answers.

And what doubts make my faith remain like a too-small blanket.

Fair enough. I brought it up, and since I’m enough of a Calvinist to think the pulpit isn’t the most appropriate place to explore doubts (it’s a place to proclaim the Gospel) I can at least give space to such questions here.

Struggle/Doubt/Question #9: The Power of Story

But in a different way.

‘Story’ is a trendy word in the publishing world and the blogosphere of late, which is a sure sign some other perspective is just on the horizon.

Anyone who’s listened to or read a few of my sermons knows that I’m inclined to communicate via story. We’re story-formed creatures I believe, and, I believe, story possesses the capacity to convey truth and meaning in a way that deductive or propositional teaching does not. Story allows room for moral complexity and emotional resonance, accessing not just the head but the heart.

Most of scripture is story, after all, and even those parts that are not, like the epistles, presume a particular story in the background.

I think narratively and I communicate best that way too.

I signed on to narrative theology, with George Lindbeck and Stanely Hauerwas, quite a while ago and that remains that position from which I’ll debate any other perspective.

Yet here’s my nagging, creeping pastor’s doubt, the annoying question that comes over me like a cold sweat after each and every sermon:

What if ‘story’ doesn’t have the power we confer upon it?

What if, in other words, the biblical stories do not form, conform or transform people over time?

01stone-img-blog427On this very topic, I’d encourage you to click over and read a piece from the NY Times: Does Great Literature Make Us Better? 

Preachers like me love to point out how Jesus’ parables still have the power to shock, offend and turn the tables of convention, but what if we’re wrong? Or kidding ourselves?

After all, when Jesus told the stories himself they seem to have fell on deaf, uncomprehending ears and left those listeners’ characters largely intact.

And unchanged.

I struggle with wondering if it’s the same for us. Is our character largely formed by actions and habits regardless of the stories we tell, hear and proclaim?

Might this be the underlying reason that 2,000 years and counting so many of the Risen Jesus’ followers do not appear to be leading (or attempting) risen lives?

 

help_my_unbelief-1One of my threadbare laments is how my particular peculiar vocation places me on par with the drunk uncle at most social (meaning secular) functions.

Like cocktail parties, children’s birthday parties and wedding receptions.

Like the drunk uncle, most everyone’s fine with my presence there and certainly no one has the stones to ask me to leave, but nearly everyone is happier to have the preacher off in the corner where he will cause minimal embarrassment and not make the guests feel uncomfortable.

A healthy part of the discomfort, I think, is that most unchurched people presume a preacher can only talk about God.

Routine banter about politics, for example, will lead inexorably to the A or the H words, leaving polite conversation far behind.

Talk of sports will provoke inane analogies to carrying crosses and any lull in the conversation might let a foot in the door for the pastor’s church membership timeshare pitch.

But more so than any of those reasons, I think a good number of people, churched or not, assume pastors are people with 100 Proof faith.

No uncertainties. No struggles. No questions.

No nagging doubts that, like a too small blanket, refuse to wrap you up snuggly from head to toe.

Unlike them.

Of course, the assumption that pastors are people without doubts is complete crap. Just like my mechanic knows better than me what’s likely to break next in my car, pastors spend day after day negotiating the particulars of this faith and we know, better than most, how fragile is the foundation.

I mentioned in my sermon for this weekend:

“being a pastor, I’ve heard all the reasons not to believe before and, as a Christian, I struggle with all of them myself.” 

I thought it an innocuous line, but it yielded me 3 queries in the line of worshippers leaving church and 4 other rapid response emails.

They all wanted to know what it is I struggle to believe.

What questions to which I’m still seeking answers.

And what doubts make my faith remain like a too-small blanket.

Fair enough. I brought it up, and since I’m enough of a Calvinist to think the pulpit isn’t the most appropriate place to explore doubts (it’s a place to proclaim the Gospel) I can at least give space to such questions here.

Struggle/Doubt/Question #10: Scripture

As a preacher, scripture is a constant companion in my life.

Actually, scripture is more like the college suite-mate that your best friend invited along to share the apartment.

Sometimes you get along with them grand.

Sometimes, when it’s the two of you, there’s just nothing they’ve got to say to you.

Other times you want to throw them through the window because they refuse to do their share of the chores.

Because I work so much with scripture, my struggles/doubts/questions aren’t what you might expect.

I don’t struggle with whether or not scripture is the Word of God. Search ‘Word of God’ on this blog and you can read why (clue: Jesus is the Word of God). I recognize but don’t lose sleep over scripture’s antiquated or gringe-inducing sections.

No, my struggles/doubts/questions about scripture are summed up excellently by a comment ‘Tracy’ left to a post:

...The Bible itself is contradictory, and silent on some topics. 

On most really interesting subjects, we can quote scripture to arrive at completely different answers.

In other words, the bible seems more complicating than clarifying, much of the time.

 

‘Tracy’ didn’t say so but he/she could’ve pointed out how any scroll through Facebook will show how ‘sincere’ Christians use scripture to buttress diametrically opposed positions, perspectives and politics.

‘Tracy’ didn’t ask it but I will: one wonders how often Christians use scripture to reinforce arguments they would’ve made had they never met Jesus?

‘Tracy’ didn’t bring it home, but I will: how often do I ‘use’ scripture to decorate a decision I’ve already long since, even if subconsciously, made?

And that’s my pastor’s nagging question.

As a preacher, I know better than most how malleable the biblical text can be with the right exegesis and just enough rhetorical flair.

When so many other followers of Jesus Christ hear something quite different in a given text, how do we know what we’re hearing in the text is the Word of God?

How do we know we’re not just hearing ourselves in a subconscious, but loud, voice?

And, ‘Tracy’ might take it a step further, if we’re unsure of what God is speaking, upon what grounds can we definitively say God ever spoke?