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Believing When All You Can Do Is Doubt

 

Credits: Fairfax CC

Photo Credits: Fairfax CC

The use of paradoxical and polar opposite concepts seems unavoidable to me these days. Perhaps indicative of where I am with life right now; perhaps it is because paradox is important and needs acknowledgment and pondering. Some realities are nonsensical in the truest sense of the word. When bad days turn into bad weeks, and bad weeks become bad months; when “one of those days” turns into multiple bad days; when the God of more than enough seems like the God of less than enough, barely enough, not nearly enough – believing and doubting appear simultaneously possible.

Dialog with others reveals that one can be in relationship with God for years, and still reach a point in life where the existence and involvement of God is questionable. They are not sure whether what they have believed is truth or a hoax. Would we still classify them as believers though they are in a place of doubting?

Sometimes disillusion and discouragement replaces clarity and hopefulness. No need to deny this – if God is God, it makes sense to me that God prefers honesty above pretense. Crying, praying and wondering, yet hoping, and shutting down, going silent in prayer and drawing odd conclusions.

Quite a few Christians that I know are ok with reading about ancient Bible characters that doubted, experienced and even did negative things. Yet somehow, when it comes to people today having some of the same experiences, we gasp, point fingers of shame and should not, as if God does not understand and as though God also gasps. Hiding behind the stories of others and denying our own realities is hypocrisy at its best.

A notable difference in our stories and their stories – both positive and negative, faith filled and doubt plagued, is that their stories are recorded in a book published for all of us to see and read. With reluctance we expose our hearts and put aspects of our lived experiences on display. We share the good, and hide the bad, thereby creating an allusion for others, conveying a message to others who struggle that the struggle they face is somehow unique. Falsehood helps no one! Though our lives are not recorded for any and everyone to read about, we are still just as human as they were. But it’s easier to talk about “them and those,” than it is to acknowledge “me and mine” – distancing ourselves from their stories as though they are somehow not our stories too.

But the question remains, is it possible to be a person of faith who questions? Is it possible to believe and simultaneously doubt and question everything you once believed and were nearly sure of – especially when God seems distant and uninterested in us and the things that are hurting us? Could it be that even when doubt overwhelms our existence, there is still a minutia of faith that remains?

There are places within ancient biblical text that allude to the possibility – people such as the dad of a child in trouble who cried “Lord I believe, help my unbelief,” or Thomas, a follower of Jesus whom we label according to his moment of doubt as though “doubting” is his first name.

Being honest about our doubts is somewhat scary. But could this being we refer to as God be more compassionate than a finger pointing, shame on you type of God, welcoming our doubts and receiving our questions as prayer or at the very least honesty? Perhaps God understands when no matter how hard we try, things don’t change? Perhaps God understands when smiles are replaced with frowns and laughter with tears? Perhaps God even understands when our faith and confidence turn into doubt and fear. Maybe God is “standing” gently by us, listening, guiding, and compassionate towards us.

I have doubts, no sense in lying about it – moments when I question as deeply as Job and laugh as boldly as Sarah and Abraham. There are things that I don’t know, there are things that I thought I knew, but I am no longer so sure of. But if God is in fact real, I know that I am loved by this God. What I don’t know is how much I trust/believe.

Many Christian folks will never admit to having doubts, after all we are referred to as “believers.” Truth is, sometimes we feel abandoned, alone and disregarded by God and by others. Sometimes the strength to hope, to dream and to continue moving forward eludes us. What I have discovered is that when courage does comes and we feel free enough to acknowledge doubts, a friend or two walks away. They may not call it walking away, but their silence speaks volumes, their decision to no longer interact with you, and ask “how are you?” are not so subtle hints that they have abandoned you. Individuals who only desire to hang around you when you are a happy, believing faith filled, positive Christian and stand aloof and at a distance when you are filled with pain, and not so happy and positive, are…, well I don’t know what to call them???

All I know is that pain – whether physical or emotional, is real. Some pain leaves us speechless. We want to talk, but no words will come; we want to scream, but our vocal cords won’t cooperate (plus, it might disturb our neighbors too). Sometimes all we can produce are moans, sighs, tears.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, because even in the trying nothing works out and all that remains is disappointment. Sometimes just when you think you are moving forward, growing and progressing, you discover that you are bound to the place where you’ve always been.

Sometimes we have more questions than answers. And whether we believe the character Job in Hebrew text is real or fictional, reading the book of Job reveals a clear picture of questioning as a result of what one is experiencing – questions for God, questions for himself and questions for his friends. Here are a just a few:

QUESTIONS FOR HIS “FRIENDS”

But why? Have I ever asked you for a gift? Have I begged for anything of yours for myself?

Have I asked you to rescue me from my enemies, or to save me from ruthless people? Honest words can be painful, but what do your criticisms amount to? Do you think your words are convincing when you disregard my cry of desperation?

Look at me! Would I lie to your face? Stop assuming my guilt, for I have done no wrong. Do you think I am lying? Don’t I know the difference between right and wrong?

“Is not all human life a struggle? Lying in bed, I think, ‘When will it be morning?’ But the night drags on, and I toss till dawn.

QUESTIONS FOR GOD

Why won’t you leave me alone, at least long enough for me to swallow! If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why make me your target? Am I a burden to you?

QUESTIONS FOR HIMSELF (reflection)

Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? Why was I laid on my mother’s lap? Why did she nurse me at her breasts? Why wasn’t I buried like a stillborn child, like a baby who never lives to see the light?

I don’t have a lot of answers. I do, however, have a plethora of questions. And I choose honesty over pretense and I believe God is honored in honesty.

All of the questions may not get answers, but we can still ask them as a means of being honest about our hearts, what we feel, what we wonder about and to release some of the pain we feel; to help us process our grief, suffering, pain. And who knows, we may eventually arrive at a place of peace with the unknown and incomprehensible even if the questions and doubt never go away. Having doubt does not mean that I don’t have faith; it just means that faith is not the only thing I have.

When we clean up our stories and present the censored, sanitized version of those stories, concealing the truth of whom and how we are – sure we maintain the image of perfection, but that doesn’t make it real and actual or helpful.

Having doubts and denying those doubts doesn’t somehow make them less real. Being annoyed with unanswered and unanswerable questions due to the trouble not only in our individual lives, but also in the world around us – racism, injustice, poverty, illness, the list goes on, is natural and human.

Life can cause us to identify with Job who in essence says that no matter where I look or which direction I face, I cannot find God and the evidence says that God is not there (Job 23:8-9). This is not Job’s starting point in relation to God and if we keep reading, it is obvious that this is not the ending point. BUT it should not be denied, dismissed or ignored that these words are also part of his experience in relation to “God.”

I am guessing that quite a few of us have these experiences, but to avoid shocking, confusing and devastating those near to us, we remain silent about these times, and only give voice to our faith filled, confident moments. The problem is that this approach is not real – it makes us a fraud, hypocritical, and quite frankly insensitive to others. So own your doubts, be unashamed of where you find yourself in life and try to keep moving forward.

 

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20 Things I Am Learning About Pain and Suffering

Photo Credits: freefoto.com

Photo Credits: freefoto.com

My last post on the problem of pain and some of the needs that come with it was somewhat raw, but real. Here are a few things that I am learning – in no particularly significant order.

1. One of the greatest gifts we can give to folks having a difficult time is letting them know they are not alone. Never underestimate the gift of presence.

2. Having people around you who believe when all you can do is doubt, is priceless

3. The theological perspective of “you must have done something wrong to be going through what you’re going through” is flawed, twisted and a bunch of #%&@%#!

4. Just because a person is still holding on doesn’t mean they’ve never considered giving up.

5. It’s ok to question God, correct or argue with crazy responses from friends, and admit that you despair of life and sometimes despise the day you were born like Job did (eventually, I must write about that brother and his wife too).

6. When you are so angry that you don’t have anything to say to God, having praying people in your life helps. They pray for us when we can’t (and don’t want to) pray for ourselves.

7. Honesty is better than pretense.

8. Folks who claim that they have never been pissed off at God or wanted to give up could possibly be lying or maybe just need to live a while longer in order to find out that it is possible to get there.

9. When people are courageous enough to expose their heart/soul, we should be compassionate enough to support rather than run away from them/avoid them.

10. Sometimes the people you never expected to “be there” are there in ways that provide healing and a sense of relief. They listen more than they talk, they call, they check in with you….

11. [In relation to claiming the status of “friend”] Asking people what they need is so much better than assuming you know what they need. It might even preserve/strengthen a friendship

12. Sometimes people ignore you in the name of “I didn’t know what to do/say,” which leads to an increase in your feelings of isolation.

13. Sometimes forgiving those who add to your pain (knowingly or unknowingly) is frustrating and difficult.

14. God provides others when some neglect you and say they “thought” they needed to give you space. What!?

15. Every smiling face is not happy…. When you take time to look beyond the surface, sometimes you’ll discover the pain of a soul that is crying. Be kind. Be gentle.

16. God can handle expressed anger and doubt and will love us anyway.

17. Faith = holding on when everything in you has quit, given up.

18. People say a lot when they are silent and sometimes the silence is just plain loud!

19. Presence truly is a gift – just being there goes a long way. Nuff said. (I know I said that already, but it’s worth repeating). 🙂

20. Scars are evidence that not only have we been hurt, but that we have been healed. But when the wound is still fresh and open, gentleness is appropriate.

 

I am pretty sure that the list is not complete, I am continually learning…. What would you add to this list?

 

Fair Judgment?

By now, many have heard of the story of the Ohio woman who was sentenced to jail time for falsifying records to send her children to a better school though it was outside of the scope of her residency. Though I normally don’t dive into topics such as this, it is difficult for me to remain silent. The story of Kelley Willians-Bolar grabbed my heart and simply left me shaking my head.

Without a doubt, it cannot be denied that a crime was committed. And for that there must be a consequence. However, in this case any sane and humane individual would have to beg the question – “Did the punishment fit the crime?” Not only so, there are some larger issues in this case that we can gloss over if we decide to simply place all of the emphasis on Williams-Bolar’s actions. Issues such as

1. A broken educational system – if the school environment where her children should have attended were better quality and equally resourced, would her actions be the same?

2. Issues of poverty and inequality – The climb out of poverty is no easy climb, especially within a system that has been historically unequal. No matter how far we have come in the issues of class and race, the reality is that we have lots more ground to cover.  I believe that Williams-Bolar is just another example of a single parent trying to figure out how to make the climb out and up. Of course now, because she has been “made an example of” it will now be even more difficult for her to move ahead.

3. A flawed and at times prejudiced judicial system – Not only does the question of race have to be raised, we also need to take into account that she is not a repeat offender – she is a mother trying to get ahead and not only care for her children, but was also attempting to better herself educationally. Again, the question is not whether a punishment should be enforced, but what type of judgment is fair and right?

On another note, as I followed this case I couldn’t help but reflect on another story in the news just days prior of a school bus driver found intoxicated while transporting multiple school children, endangering their lives and putting the lives of other drivers at risk. Her penalty – 480 hours of community service, fines, and probation with the absence of jail time.

To borrow from Elon James White:

“I’m not saying Kelley Williams-Bolar was right. I’m not saying she shouldn’t have to pay what she owes to the local government. I’m saying to make an example of a poor mother with a family on her first offense is unconscionable. To think this reasonable is to ignore the reality that we live in and the shades of right and wrong that appear in so many offenses.”

Williams-Bolar’s actions, though wrong, are only a very small part of the equation. Placing an emphasis on her actions while ignoring the circumstances that surround her actions and setting them in the proper context of societal and systemic ills is a greater offense. Judging Williams-Bolar is incomplete in that it fails to address the root causes.

What are your thoughts on this story? I would love to hear from you in the comments

Declining Churches

The stats are in – the American Church in many ways is not booming, it’s declining. According to research done by David Olson the church is not keeping up with the growth of the population. Some churches are closing, others are stagnant, and thankfully others are seeing exponential and continuous growth.

I am no expert, so please don’t read this with that expectation. However, as I have observed certain congregations I have concluded that at least some of the following could be reasons why many (not all)  churches are either declining or failing to grow and then I will offer what I believe to be possible solutions. They are in random order.

#1 Answering Questions that No One is Asking
The world has changed and continues to change. Many of the issues our culture face in the 21st Century are vastly different from those of the previous century. Yet many churches fail to address relevant issues and apply God’s still relevant voice to those issues. Blowing the dust off of yesterday’s sermon illustrations, spouting off old cliches, and insisting on ancient music don’t draw many people to churches who are looking for hope and help. Listen to God and keep an ear toward culture and make the connection.

#2 Attachment to Outdated Methodologies
I have heard countless people criticize things such as contemporary worship songs, use of media, not having Sunday School, etc. No matter how much growth is experienced by those places who stay open to God’s ideas regarding some of the possible  “how tos” of ministry today, still critics remain. Yesterday’s ideas may have been God given and we should celebrate those ideas. However, to insist on doing them forever is to close our hands to the rest of what God desires to give us and do through us. No, every church doesn’t need to have bells and whistles, but God does call us to forward movement – He has more.

#3 Solo Leadership Models and Practice
I’ve been wrestling with whether or not solo leadership is healthy for an individual and for local congregations. One pastor who does it all couldn’t be healthy. Even if the ability to have additional paid pastoral staff is not possible, it is necessary for the health of churches and leaders to give her/himself to the role of equipping others for ministry so that they share in the work God is doing rather than simply watch the solo pastor do it. The same is true for those who lead specific subgroups within churches. It makes sense to me that those individuals are not called to do all the work but to “pastor,” develop/train, and release those whom they lead into service.

#4 Self Reliance Over God Reliance
There’s a statement floating around and I am unaware of where it originated from so please forgive me. Here it goes. ‘If the Holy Spirit walked away from many churches today, things would still carry on as if He never left.’ Reaching a place where we believe that we are smart enough on our own and skilled enough on our own to be effective at the work of God is a bad idea. The Holy Spirit is the One who sustains and empowers us to have a significant impact.

Do the challenges mean that we should pack up our bags and go home? The Church is God’s organization and organism in the world, so that couldn’t be what we are called to. These challenges present us with an opportunity to do one central thing – CHANGE.

LIFE CHANGE – Everyone who ever encountered Jesus experienced change, whether in thought, behavior, direction or position. The change that Jesus brings about in us is not just for us but to cause us to live lives that draw others one step closer to Him. We’ll get stretched and it’s worth it!

STRATEGIC CHANGE – Every organization, the Church included, should have clear vision, goals that walk in the direction of that vision, and a power source to enable the execution of those goals by accessing the resources made available.

PRACTICAL CHANGE – Lofty vision and goals are good, yet they need to be fleshed out in a way that makes practical sense for those we are aiming to reach and do ministry with. Practical change should take place in our practices within congregations as well as in our approach to connecting with the needs of the people in the communities where our churches are located.

That’s what I think. What do you think? Share in the Comments below and let me know. I want to hear from you.