Okay, so let’s just get down to it, shall we? I’ve decided to interrupt my series of posts recounting the story of how we got from OH to TX so hurriedly this past year and all the craziness that has happened since our arrival. As I said in those posts, my past- my “baggage”- feels awfully heavy and wearisome even to me right now. My life was so “rich” with heartache and drama before any of that happened, and it seems that in the past year the pace of all the stress and drama-producing events has somehow only accelerated. I want to finish telling the story of the past year, but I lack the words to do so right now. To articulate that pain is, I suppose, beyond me just yet.
I mentioned on Facebook recently that David Bazan’s lyrics from the song Bad Things to Such Good People have really been resonating with me. There’s good reason for that. Here they are:
My jail shoes on, the well kept cemetery lawn.
Both of them weeping, their one good son now was gone.
The irony to see my dad down on his knees,
crying out to Jesus, ‘But Lord, I’ve always done what’s right.’
And all the while, the good Lord smiled,
and looked the other way, and looked the other way.
When we were kids, I did my best to make them proud.
It just wasn’t in me, I could not fly straight to save my life.
And all the while, the good Lord smiled,
and looked the other way, and looked the other way.
Their big success is now their biggest failure,
their golden child has been dethroned,
their reputation is now in ruins,
their tower to Heaven has come tumbling down.
And all the while, the good Lord smiles,
and looks the other way, and looks the other way.
This notion of God’s absence has ironically been very “present” to me as of late, and probably has been for some time. I’m comforted to know that my taking notice of God only by way of his absence lands me in good company. Mother Teresa is now notably known (though only posthumously) to have conducted most of her incredible life and ministry of love, service, humility, and sacrifice under the shadow not of God’s presence in the poorest of the poor- as she famously attested to- but rather under the shadow of his absence. When accepting her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she said: ” I believe that we are not really social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of people. But we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world. For we are touching the body of Christ twenty-four hours. We have twenty-four hours in His presence.” However, in November of the same year -1979- she wrote in a personal letter: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” Is it possible that these two statements came from the same person, especially when that person is Mother Teresa? What does it mean that even she endured such a remarkable crisis of faith, and for apparently such a very long period of time?
In a similar vein, John of the Cross is also notable for having coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” in his poem by the same name. This experience of the soul’s desolation is one that I’ve come to know well, and hope to describe shortly. Other literary allusions to this come to mind. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, in which he writes: “Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” If you’ve read The Screwtape Letters, you may recall that Wormwood was the young nephew demon of Screwtape, and the “Enemy” of course is God. Lewis’ point, then, may be that Satan isn’t so concerned with the follower of God who does God’s will when all is well as he is with the follower of God who intends to do God’s will even though he doesn’t want to and who in fact does so (that is, does God’s will) in a world in which there appears to be no trace of God at all. This is the world I find myself in today.
“I still believe in the resurrection.” A mentor and friend once said this to me as we were driving back from our weekly breakfast meeting. He went on to say basically (as I remember it) that he could take or leave the rest of it- some of the other miraculous events in the Bible, even- and with them much of the drama over whether or not the Bible is factually true (those are my words, not his). His point was that in the face of many good reasons not to believe anymore- to give up on Christianity and moreover, Jesus, he just…couldn’t…quite…do it. Somehow he still found the resurrection- and the way of life it inspired- compelling. He said as much: “Maybe Christianity is just a worldview, but it’s the best one I’ve found.”
Those words of his have stuck with me (along with many others) even many years since we were last in contact. I still cling to a belief in the resurrection as the pivotal event in human history, but I do so deliberately, in spite of many very good reasons not to. You might call it duty. I call it desperation. I’m desperate because of all of those very good reasons not to believe any more. To conflate Bart Ehrman and C.S. Lewis, “God’s problem” is indeed the problem of pain, and after all these years this pain is starting to wear me down.
I still believe (in) the resurrection. I still believe the Jesus story, but I do so foolishly, not because of the evidence but in spite of it. I believe because I have to. The alternative, for me, is utter despair. Bart Campolo puts it far better than I ever could. I first posted the following piece from Bart on my previous blog in 2006. This is what I said then:
Being careful not to misrepresent the truth, let me say that as a 1995 Kingdomworks alum, Bart Campolo is someone that I have had the privilege to know and be loved by. We had occasion for several wonderful individual talks during that summer of ’95, and I did my best to stay in touch over the years since then. I know of course that I am but one of thousands of lives that he has touched- lives who have come away better for the experience, but I am still glad to be able to count myself among the lucky ones. I’ve copied below something he wrote about the experience of touching another life in regard to what it means to be a Christ-follower these days. His approach may not be “orthodox,” but I cry when I read it because it deeply resonates with my experience, understanding, and hopes. Here’s the link, and here’s the article (Bart’s text is in red below)-A few years ago, after being politely asked to depart early from yet another speaking engagement for giving the wrong answer to a question about the limits of God’s mercy, I decided it wasn’t fair to keep sneaking up on unsuspecting Evangelicals. Strange as it seems to me, I know all too well that to promote a God both loving enough to desire the salvation of all His children and powerful enough to accomplish it is a dangerous scandal to such folks. After all, without the fear of their unsaved loved ones’ eternal damnation, how would they motivate one another for outreach and missionary service?
And yet, almost everywhere I go, I meet people –especially young people – who are not motivated at all by such fear. On the contrary, these people are utterly horrified by the notion of a Heavenly Father who essentially says to His children, ‘I love you, but if for any reason you fail to accept that fact before your mortal body expires, I will kill and torture you for all eternity’. Especially if that same Heavenly Father holds in His hand all the reasons His children do or don’t accept Him in the first place. These are the people who ask me the questions that used to lead to my early departures, and who write me letters and emails like this one:
This might be kind of weird, but I have a question for you. I did Mission Year last year and when you came to visit my team you told a story about how when first started working in the inner-city, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a 9-year-old and, after her Sunday School teacher told her God must
have allowed it for a reason, rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God was a cruel bastard. You sort of said the words inside my head out loud, words I had wanted to say
for a long time.
Anyway, after putting this off for almost a year, I want to know how you reconciled that. How did you make it from, “God is a cruel bastard” back to “I can trust Him”? I can’t seem to make that leap. Sometimes I begin to really trust Him, but as soon as I think about my past abuse and those I know and love who are bound for Hell…it just doesn’t add up. I want to know the God
you know- who apparently allows for horrible things in this world to happen, but remains pure and holy and trustworthy and faithful and loving.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense to you, but as I was wrestling with it again today I was reminded of you and hoped you might be of some help.
Thank you for writing to me. Over the past few years, I have become convinced that yours is actually the single most important question in the world. As Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, “Virtually every meaningful conversation I’ve had with people about God has either started with that question or gotten around to it before long” While I am sure my answer will not be as eloquent as his, I will do my best.
First of all, while I certainly believe my most cherished ideas about God are supported by the Bible (what Christian says otherwise?), I must admit they did not originate there. On the contrary, most of these ideas were formed during that difficult time I described to you, when I was suddenly disillusioned by the suffering and injustice I discovered in the inner-city, and did not trust the Bible at all. At that point, for the first time, I realized that a person’s life does not depend on whether he or she believes in God, but rather on what kind of God he or she believes in. I also realized, for better or worse, that the only evidence I was could rely on was that which I saw for myself.
What I saw then, and still see now, is a world filled with dazzling goodness and horrific evil, with love and hate, with beauty and ugliness, with life and death. In the face of such clear duality, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that there are but a handful of spiritual possibilities:
*There are no spiritual forces. The material universe is all. Our lives bear no larger meaning, and those who hope for more hope in vain. In this case, considering that 9-year old rape victim, I despair.
*There is only one spiritual force at work in the universe, encompassing both good and evil. This world is precisely as this force wills it to be, and everything—including the rapes of children—happens according to its plan. In this case, again, I despair.
* There are two diametrically opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. Satan (or whatever one chooses to call that evil force) is most powerful and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl is but a foretaste of the complete suffering that is to come for us all. In this case, of course, I despair.
*There are two opposing spiritual forces at work in the universe, one entirely good and loving and the other entirely evil. God (or whatever one chooses to call that good and loving force) is most powerful, and therefore will utterly triumph in the end. The suffering of that poor little girl – Satan’s doing – will somehow be redeemed and she herself will be healed as part of the complete redemption and absolute healing that is to come for all of us. In this case—and in this case alone—I rejoice, and gladly pledge my allegiance to this good and loving God.
I cannot prove or disprove any of these possibilities, of course, based on the evidence of my experience. What I know with certainty, however, is the one that makes me want to go on living, the one I choose for my own sake, the one I deem worthy of my allegiance. I may be wrong in this matter, but I am not in doubt. If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.
This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.
This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.
Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.
My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.
Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell. For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing.
You can figure out the rest. I don’t hate God because I don’t believe God is fully in control of this world yet. Heck, God is not fully in control of me yet, even when I want Him to be, so how could I possibly believe that God is making it all happen out there in the street? I don’t hate God because I believe He is always doing the best He can, within the limits of human freedom, which even He cannot escape.
On that last point, consider for a moment the essential relationship between human freedom and love, and then consider the essential identity between love and God. If God is love, if He made us for love in His image, then He had no choice but to make us free, to leave us free, and to win us for His Kingdom as free agents (which, evidently, is a long and difficult task). So He did, and so He will.
I don’t hate God because, although I suppose He knows everything that can be known at any given point in time, I don’t suppose He knows or controls everything that is going to happen. I also don’t hate God because I really believe in Satan (and also in my own, moving-in-the-right-direction-but-still-pretty-doggoned-sinful nature). I don’t hate God because it seems to me that this world is a battleground between good and evil, not a puppet show with just one person pulling all the strings. I don’t hate God because the God I have chosen to believe in isn’t hateable, and because I refuse to believe in the kind of God that is.
Now here is the good news: I may be entirely wrong, but even in my darkest hours, my God of love hasn’t stopped speaking to me. On the contrary, I hear His voice in places I never did before, always saying the same things, one way or another: I am with you. I’m sorry about all the pain. It hurts me too, especially when my little ones suffer. I have always loved you and I always will. Do the best you can, but don’t worry. Everything will be all right in the end. Trust me.
And I do. And I hope you will too, sooner than later.
Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change the rules of ministry, and especially of youth ministry. I still convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want kids’ to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe it’s a better life. Eternity aside, I want their lives to be transformed by God’s truth right now, for their sakes and for the sake of all the hungry and broken people out there who need them to start living His disciples. After all, the sooner we all start following Jesus by feeding the poor and freeing the oppressed, the sooner God’s will will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. But most of all, I evangelize people because I know they are my loving God’s beloved children, and I don’t want them to live a minute longer without knowing too that most wonderful fact of life.
And I stay in the inner city, in spite of all the suffering and injustice I see here every day, because I can. No longer do I blame God for what is beyond His control, or hate him for visiting so much pain on His little ones. Even in the midst of such ugliness, I can stay here because I am full of faith. I may not be sure of what I know anymore, but I am absolutely certain of what I hope for, and most of the time I manage to live in that direction.
I stay here for one more reason, of course: In places like this, nobody asks you to leave early because you can no longer find the limits of God’s mercy.
I still find Bart’s words to be extremely powerful, and if I could pray much these days, I would pray that he’s somehow right- about God and the limits (or lack thereof) of his mercy, about all the good reasons to love people into right relationship with God sooner rather than later, about all of it. Yet, in the place in my soul where prayer should originate there is silence, just as there is silence within where I believe I should find God. My impulse now is to rationalize the silence, to explain it away, to tell you that the silence must be endured not for its own sake but because on the other side of this “dark night” lies a deeper and more profound relationship with God, but I suspect that to do this would be to shortchange and short-circuit this process for me.
I suspect that I must endure this terrible silence because it would be perhaps more terrible to endure God’s presence. I would rather God be absent than to be present and impotent to relieve the suffering- or worse, indifferent to it. Of course, Bart Campolo describes a God that is neither. He describes a God that is instead patient on a God-like scale, patient to the extreme, willing to wait for every last one of us to finally surrender to love, even if it takes what seems like an eternity. Bart also describes a God whose voice he seems to still be able to hear, if only in the “least of these,” perhaps.
Perhaps some day I will hear that voice again too, be it “still” and “small” within or not. Until then, I must face the silence. In Lutheran theology (as I was trained to understand it) there’s a notion of God “hiding” in unexpected places so as to save us from the terror of our own self-judgment in the face of God’s presence in the expected places. Somehow I’ve always found this strangely comforting, but comfort eludes me now.
Yet I still intend to obey. I still yearn for the life of radical discipleship, a life “on the way” with Jesus, be he present in any discernible way- or not. I intend to obey because “I can do no other, ” and I hope this is somehow enough…for now at least. I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope that God still holds the future somehow, and that even now he’s working tirelessly to overcome evil (even the evil in me), however long and difficult of a task that proves to be.
So say we all.