This weekend we begin a sermon series entitled The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. For the series, I solicited questions from you challenging belief in God- you can still send me your questions, by the way.
One of the questions as to me directly: ‘Have you ever doubted?’
The best response I can give to that is from this pericope of an old sermon:
The first time God’s presence disappeared from my life I’d been a Christian for seven years. I’d been a candidate in the United Methodist ordination process for a year and a half. I’d been a seminary student for two semesters, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months when a member of my tiny little congregation at Linvale United Methodist Church outside Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the 10:00 worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and killed himself.
It had been seven years since I’d given my life to Christ. I had ten ‘Master of Divinity’ courses notched on my transcript. I’d been a minister for a dozen or so Sundays. And, suddenly, God just wasn’t there anymore.
His name was Glenn.
He came to church with his daughter-in-law. Sometimes her husband, his son, came with them. He was named Glenn too. They always sat in the very middle of the sanctuary near the center aisle.
At the end of every service I would stand outside on the steps of the church porch. He would make his way through the line and would shake my hand and say ‘Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune though’ and then he would walk off down the sidewalk and drive away in his red PT Cruiser.
Every Sunday it was like that until the Sunday he drove home and decided to take the key hidden in a kitchen coffee can and unlock his gun cabinet.
Later that afternoon, his daughter-in-law called me at my apartment. And when she told me what he had done, I couldn’t help myself. Without thinking how it might sound, I just asked her: ‘Why? Why would he do that?’
She didn’t have an answer.
Even if she’d had an answer, she was crying too hard to get the words out. And besides, an answer wasn’t really what I was asking for.
What I wanted was something more like absolution. Because listening to her sob in to the phone, I felt stabbed by guilt: guilt that I never took the time to get beyond: Nice sermon…the organ sounds out of tune.
I was just a ‘part-time’ pastor. I had books to read and papers to write and classes to attend and he never fit into my schedule.
She caught her breath long enough to ask me if I would come over to Glenn’s house.
I said yes.
And it wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized: I’d never even been to a funeral before.
After a drive in my car that I quite honestly hoped would never end, I met them at Glenn’s house.
Neighbors standing in the street stared at me as I got out of the car and walked up to the house.
When Glenn’s daughter-in-law answered the door, I hugged her there on the front porch- not because I knew that was the right thing to do, not because I was overwhelmed with empathy or even because I’m a natural hugger- I was just terrified to say anything.
She led me down the hall to Glenn’s kitchen where we all sat down while she started to rummage through the refrigerator to make sandwiches no one would eat. Even if we couldn’t articulate it, we all sensed that eating would’ve violated something sacred.
Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall. A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards. He needed eggs and creamer.
I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that my 10 ‘Master of Divinity’ courses had in no way prepared to do anything for them.
We sat in the quiet for a long time. It was only later in my ministry, after I’d been with several other grieving families, that I understood the silence in that kitchen. It was because all the usual cliches we wield against death were off limits that afternoon.
No one in that kitchen could fill the silence with: He’s in a better place. At least he didn’t suffer. God must’ve needed him in heaven.
There was none of that. There was no bright side to look at, no reason to find, no pious explanation to smooth out the tragedy.
Glenn’s son, Glenn, sat next to me playing with the coffee can I later learned had held the hidden key. He broke the silence by telling me he didn’t want any mention of his Dad’s suicide at the funeral service. ‘Not one word’ he told me and I realized it was something of a threat.
What he said he wanted was what families always say they want: a celebration of his life. Back then I wasn’t brave enough to ignore what they wanted.
The funeral came a few days later.
They held it at the funeral home. Glenn’s family said it was because the steep sanctuary steps would’ve been too difficult for the pallbearers, but even then I knew better.
Everyone gathered there that Wednesday morning knew the details of what had happened, yet we were all willing accomplices in keeping it a secret.
In my homily I said exactly what the family wanted me to say. You would’ve thought Glenn had died peacefully in his sleep after a long and happy life.
I preached about God’s mercy, about how God-in-Christ shares our grief.
Mostly I preached about God’s presence in our lives, in the here and now, to bring us comfort.
At that point, I’d been a Christian for about 1/3 of my life. At that point I’d earned 30 credit hours in seminary. At that point I was about 8 minutes into my first ever funeral sermon when I realized that what I was saying about God’s presence wasn’t true.
I don’t mean it was false in a general, universal way. I don’t mean it was false for anyone in that funeral parlor. It’s just that as I was speaking the words, I realized they were no longer true for me.
In the weeks that followed it got worse.
My prayers felt like they’d bounced off the ceiling and come back to me unheard.
Where before my faith had felt as real inside me as water or blood, now it felt dried up. Sunday mornings my preaching felt hallow and rang false.
I don’t know how it happened exactly or why, but it felt like God’s presence had been amputated from me. I could remember what it had felt like to have it as a part of me, and now all I could feel was its not-there-ness.
I didn’t not believe in God anymore. God just wasn’t present to me anymore. It was like God had gotten up and left.
After a while I realized that could be problem for a pastor.
No offense but I could never put up with church people for a living if God wasn’t real to me and present in my life.
Nothing changed for a couple of months.
I didn’t know what to do. I thought about dropping out of seminary. I applied to teach school in New York City.
I made the mistake of sharing my dilemma with my ordination mentor here in Virginia; he very helpfully suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be a minister after all.
I confided to a theology professor who didn’t seem to understand and who, without a trace of irony, suggested that if I didn’t have God in my life I could at least teach at a seminary.
What they didn’t understand was that I wasn’t worried about my career. I just wanted God back.