Friday, February 27, 2009

Faith, Doubt and the Ultimate Choice to "Believe it or Not"

The previous post on writer William Lobdell's new book ("Losing My Religion") which chronicles the onset and subsequent total loss of his Christian faith prompted me to reflect again on the struggles that go with believing. Here are a couple things I observe and believe about "belief":

1. Doubt is not the opposite of faith, it is part of faith.

Great people of faith, including the biblical "father of faith" himself (Abraham), had their doubts. One of the most striking New Testament passages where doubt is mentioned comes from the verses immediately preceding the Great Comission in Matthew 28. In this account, the disciples met with the Risen Jesus at a pre-designated location. As He stood before them: "they worshipped Him -- and some doubted". That's right: they were looking at the Risen Lord and worshipping Him and, while doing so, at least some of them doubted. There's a lesson there for us!

To better understand the place of doubt within the realm of faith would help our churches to be places where we helped each othe squeeze through the narrow passages of doubt that eventually open up into new expanses of faith. Someone has pointed that secular Universities have become places where there is no room for faith while churches (too often) are places where there is no room for doubt.

2. Faith is not a feeling. It is a decision.

Remember the little train in the Four Spiritual Laws tract that represented the links between faith, facts and feelings? The point was that when "feelings" were in the lead of the other two, the prospect of the train breaking down or jumping the tracks was most likely. A simple illustration, yes --but a true one nonetheless. Grace, it seems, gives us the ability to make the raw choice to believe even though our feelings may lag behind. "Lord, I believe (choice), help my (feelings of) unbelief".

3. Denial is also a choice.

I feel bad for people who "lose their faith", but -- at the end of the day -- their choice to do so is based on the same data I use to reinforce my faith. They have the testimony of the Word (especially the Gospels) and the Spirit. So do I. They have the testimony of those who have finished well as people of faith -- often through mind-bending and harrowing circumstances of the Hebrews 11 variety. So do I. They have the negative witness of those who live shamefully and fraudulently while confessing faith. So do I. They have their previous experiences of God in this life to take into account. So do I. They have doubts. So do I. They have disappointments. So do I. They have inspirations. So do I.

In the end, they say they can no longer support a life of faith because of these things. In the end, I say that I can.

This is partially because I believe the verse that tells us: "If we are faithless (doubting), He remains faithful". I may lose my grip on God's hand at times, but He never ceases to hold on to mine. But the verse continues: "If we deny Him, He will deny us". Denial is distinct from temporary faithlessness. To live in denial is to, in effect, murder our faith (not just "lose" it the way we sometimes lose our car keys). Now free of the burden of struggling with faith, the burden of believing, the freshly-minted athiest testifies (as William Lobdell has) of "surprising peace". While I cannot gainsay their experience, I can gainsay the dubious value of that kind of "peace".

Mr. Lobdell is by no means alone. There have always been those who, like him, have become so offended, disappointed, stumbled, disillusioned and upset with their faith commitment that they find relief in shedding it altogether. I do not second-guess the sincerity of such people but I certainly do not consider them victims with no choice but to renounce belief either. Yes, the life of faith is a sometimes daunting and breathtaking struggle. But the life of unbelief is no picnic either. Lobdell has made his choice and I have made mine. May God help us both!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On the Total Loss of William Lobdell's Faith

Today's OC Register had a front page article on former LA Times religion journalist William Lobdell's new book in which he chronicles his journey into the Christian faith and his more recent total loss of faith (linked here

He is the married father of four boys who first came to embrace a born again faith in his late twenties after visiting Mariners Church and then going on a mountain retreat. Over the ensuing years, he and his wife identified with St. Andrews Presbyterian Church before finally embracing his wife's childhood Roman Catholic faith. The "unraveling" of his Christian commitment began in 2001 while reporting on the about-to-blow-wide-open scandal of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The article claims this was further helped along by Lobdell's closer look at televangelists like Benny Hinn (now THERE'S a shock!).

Haven't read the book and probably won't, but I have been "up close and personal" with folks who have either deeply doubted their faith or lost it altogether before, so I feel I know Lobdell's story by instinct if not by detail. I observe that such people do not respond well to the typical "proofs of God's existence" or other apologetics. Often, the faith crisis is precipitated by an emotional or interpersonal set of experiences that leave the person reeling and confused. For some, their crisis resolves as a deeper, more mature new faith commitment. For others, it ends with the person becoming a "reluctant athiest" (Lobdell's own words) for good.

Reading the story in today's paper brought a few particular people to my mind -- people I really care for -- who have, nevertheless, lost their faith and dissociated themselves from their earlier Christian identity and convictions. This is always hard to watch because I believe so deeply in Jesus Christ and have made it my life-long effort to follow Him and to go where that belief leads me. Therefore, I ache when I see others become offended, discouraged, distraught and emptied of their faith after making strong public confessions as believers -- especially when I have engaged in my own struggles to reconcile my inconsistencies as well as the inconsistincies (and even frauds!) of others who claim Christ as Lord.

In light of this, I sent the following email response to the Editor:

"After living a lifetime as a born again Christian, I observe the following: The best people I know, those I admire most and wish to be most like are Christians. And, the people I feel most disappointed in, the ones who frustrate me most deeply and who nearly break my heart are also Christians. Thus has it always been, thus will it always be."

More about faith, doubt and total loss on my next post.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hal Lindsay Was Right

Okay, maybe he wasn't (wasn't right about how the biblical End Times would go down, that is). The Late Great Planet Earth was a huge seller and went a long way towards convincing quite a few of us Jesus People types that Russia would soon be attacking little Israel, God's people would be raptured, and Jesus would come again very, very soon. For a while, Hal was king of the Last Days prophecy tribe and set the tone for others that followed. But once the bloom was off that particular rose, I -- along with many other folks -- found it easy to recycle our copies of Late Great as kindling, Salvation Army donations, door stops or what have you.

But, these days, I find myself revisiting the questions Hal and his kind raised about where the world is going and what kind of spiritual-political agendas may suddenly arise. That's because, in a very short time, we Americans have not only gotten mired in a booger of a recession of our own, but have become inextricably entangled in a worldwide economic rodeo that promises to shake both the developed and developing world alike.

Does all this mean Obama is the antiChrist? Ummmm. No, I don't think it does. But does it mean that the stage has been set for a sort of global "pre-game show" unlike anything we've every seen before? Ummmmm. Yes. More than ever, we are living in days when it feels like anything could happen on the world scene including the kinds of apocalyptic maneuvers that keep the Hal Lindsay's of this world awake at night concocting their latest charts, graphs and showdown scenarios.

I'm not ready to publish my own Late Great Planet Earth quite yet, but I am certainly paying attention to world events in a different way than I have for some quite awhile. How 'bout you?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I Predict...

1. That, very soon, the United States will suffer a major and widespread financial crisis.

2. That the attention now given to man-made global warming will be diverted to the issue of man-made ridiculous executive compensation packages.

3. That our new President will get off to a rough start.

4. The best way to stop fighting in the Middle East will be to give everyone access to a good TV set and a subscription to cable.

5. That the public education system will collapse under its own ponderous weight and the children and their teachers will dance on the rubble.

6. That second-hand smoke will come to be seen as the single most important issue in the entire free world.

7. That Arnold Schwartzenager will spontaneously combust.

8. That religious leaders who are in the public eye will have a tough time making sense to people who do not already believe as they do when it comes to any given subject.

9. That, very soon, both Democrats and Republicans will lose credibility with the public and the US will be ruled by the Queen of the Wood Elves.

10. That Facebook and email will go completely blank for one day and everyone will die as a result.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

John Wimber, The Everyday Jesus, and Us

John Wimber of the Vineyard Movement was fond of reminding his followers that "the meat is in the street". In saying this, he wasn't reporting the results of a truck accident a few blocks from the Jimmy Dean Sausage plant. He was, in fact, expressing his core philosophy of ministry -- that the best and most satisfying places to share in the ministry of Jesus are the everyday places of our lives, i.e. "the street".

To understand this notion, it would help to understand three things:

1. Wimber was a biblical literalist. He believed that the "stuff" (his term) we read about in the Gospels and Acts is the same kind of "stuff" that should be happening through and around Christ-followers today. This belief continuously impacted his view of church life, evangelism and contemporary Christianity.

2. Wimber lived as a totally non-churched "pagan" until he was well into his adulthood. In fact, were it not for the outreach of a persistant and bold layman from his neighborhood, it is hard to imagine how a man like him would have ever become a believer, much less a highly-influential church leader. In other words, his own encounter with Jesus as Lord began in the "everyday" place of his house.

3. As a church consultant for a prominent Church Growth institute, Wimber had an intense personal knowledge of the mainstream evangelical church of his time. What he personally saw and experienced through his interaction with thousands of pastors and church leaders only deepened his convictions that churches were too often functionally and philisophically at odds with their own stated mission.

The movement John Wimber led is now more than twenty five years old and he himself has passed on to Glory. Throughout its development, the Vineyard movement has had to struggle to retain the outward, everyday vision for ministry that informed John's sensibilities. But if he were still with us today, I believe he would be pointing us back to "the street" -- calling us to take risks by initiating "street level" contact with people who need Jesus.

Frankly, I don't know if he would have totally understood or even approved of our VCMN network. John was a church planter and a great believer in the local church as it is usually constituted in America. But one thing I DO know, is that he would love to hear the stories we are beginning to tell of how our members are taking the ministry of Jesus to neighborhoods and other everyday places.

These stories of loving God and loving neighbor smack of the down-to-earth discipleship John insisted upon. Maybe, just maybe, it would bless him to see that we agree that "the meat is in the street" and are willing to take the kinds of risks that go with sharing the Gospel in word and works in the places people live, work, learn and recreate (our VCMN mission). And, we're just getting started!