Category Archives: Faith

A Letter About Doubt

I wanted to follow-up on something at the end of our conversation. I said, “Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing.” And then you said, “But it could be.” To which I replied, “Of course it could be.” I’m not entirely happy with my response.

Doubt could be a bad thing if you assume doubt means a loss of faith, if you assume doubt borders on Agnosticism or Atheism. Some people assume this and then, rather than explore their doubts from within (which is where their problems lie), they start looking elsewhere, as if doubts can be dealt with through another belief system. But it can’t. They will eventually find the same struggles there.

That’s why the Psalms really are a great thing to turn to. Read Psalm 13 sometime soon. The Psalmist, in his own way, asked the same questions you are asking,

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”

Read that Psalm–slowly; soak it in. You could even make it your own prayer. The Psalmist doesn’t have it all together. Nobody does. Doubt is a universal struggle. That’s not meant to diminish your questions and concerns in any way, but simply to say that you are not alone, you are not an oddity among people of faith.

What’s unique about the Psalmist, though, is that he didn’t keep these things to himself and didn’t walk away from God. Instead, he dared to direct his questions and doubt and anguish at God. If I have some kind of issue with a friend or family member, the solution isn’t to walk away but to address that friend. Otherwise I’m not dealing with the problem. In one way or another, if I don’t address the source of the problem, I am simply ignoring the issue. If your questions are about God, don’t shut him out of the conversation and struggle, but be honest in your prayers.

I mentioned that we shouldn’t let our current mood or state or whatever dictate the entire course of our lives. This moment isn’t the only moment in your life–there have been many and there will be many. There are certainly pivotal points of change in life, but it seems to me that more often than not we fall into those moments. We don’t make a choice one day to take this moment of doubt or this moment of anger and let that guide my life from here on in. Psalm 13 kind of addresses this in a small way: “I trust in your unfailing love.” The Psalmist remembers God’s faithfulness and the things that God has done for him and the people of Israel. Psalm 77 is another Psalm of struggle, and there it says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.”

There’s something poignant in Bruce Cockburn’s words (at least, as I understand them):

Derailed and desperate
How did I get here?
Hanging from this high wire
By the tatters of my faith

Sometimes all we have to go on is what has come before–whether that is the faith of the “saints” (that is, Christians that have gone before) or our own faith to this point (or our baptism) and we choose to carry on in faith through this season.

Daniel Taylor, in that book I was telling you about, says this:

Normally doubt is seen as sapping faith’s strength. Why not the reverse? Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being. Clearly faith is not needed where certainty supposedly exists.

Doubt does not mean you have lost your faith or no longer believe, nor does it mean that you are heading in that direction. And your doubts in themselves don’t make or break the truth of something. Doubt means simply that you have questions and uncertainties about your beliefs and about God. To have faith means to carry on in spite of uncertainties and seasons of doubt.

[…]

I hope this is helpful…

Pre-sermon nightmare

I preach tomorrow morning on a weepy passage from Jeremiah, which I have found difficult to carry over into modern meaning.

Today, in my fitful early morning, post-alarm sleep, I dreamed that I had neglected to finalize my rough notes and to go over them before delivery. At some point I realized I was preaching to a group of impoverished women and children in muddy ocean-side caves. The tide was rising.

It was a disaster on so many levels. Incoherent due mixed up notes; irrelevant to the audience, who, as a result, were not at all paying attention; my pastor standing there taking it all in and looking at me with deep disappointment.

What a nightmare.

Don’t stop believing

Gordon Atkinson (of dormant Real Live Preacher) wrote a letter to his daughter about her doubts. It’s warm and fatherly. It also expresses the important but generally ignored notion that doubt or lack of understanding is not in itself reason to give up on faith:

On the one hand, it is glorious for you to ask questions. It is beautiful and righteous and good for you to wonder at the deep mysteries of the world. How I love your mind. How I look forward to years of conversations with you.

On the other hand, if you can know this without it causing you to despair, understand that you will not find answers to many of those questions. Some questions will haunt you all of your life. And most answers you do find will only come after decades of searching and seeking and trying and failing and despairing and hurting and grieving and giving birth and discovering and accepting and laughing and experiencing the rich joys of life.

My precious daughter, if I could give you any gift today, it would be that you might experience the joy of your questions without being burdened by the elusive nature of their answers.

You are young. Now is the time for practice. Throw yourself into the practice of Christianity. Pray and worship and read the scriptures. Ask your questions, yes, but do so while practicing your faith.

I think you’ll find that when your mind reaches its limits, it’s good to pay attention to the body.

And the body needs practice.

Read the rest: “A Letter to my Doubting Daughter.”

Islam and Current Events

Today was the first day of a week-long class called “Islam and Current Events” (interesting timing with the death of Osama bin Laden). It was very stimulating. The professor (Dr. Nabeel Jabbour–from off-campus) noted that there are two sides of the coin in terms of what is presented regarding Islam and the Middle East. Muslims get one side; the West gets another. One of the aims of the course is for us to get the side we don’t normally hear.

Joel noted accurately that pretty much everything he said today is new material. It was all very interesting, but what was of particular interest to me was trying to understand Islam from a Muslim point-of-view.

Christians normally approach the topic with what they assume is a direct-correspondence approach: compare our guy and their guy, our scriptures and their scriptures. They have Muhammad, we have Jesus; they have the Qur’an, we have the Bible. We make the connections, assuming their figure and scripture are analogous to ours, and think we understand Islam.

Dr. Jabbour argued that this kind of comparison does not, in fact, work to understand Islam. Christians won’t understand Islam if they assume the same thing about Muhammad and the Qur’an as Christians do about Jesus and the Bible. It’s not simply a matter of saying, the Qur’an is their authoritative book, just like the Bible is our authoritative book.

In fact, the comparisons that work–that is, the views that we could say are analogous between the two religions–are quite unexpected. Here are the main ones we discussed:

1. We  cannot directly compare Jesus and Muhammad. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal, uncreated word of God. Muslims believe nothing of the sort about Muhammad. In Islam, the closest analogy to Jesus is actually the Qur’an, which they believe is the eternal, uncreated word of God.

2. The closest analogy for Muslim belief about Muhammad is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Both Mary and Muhammad are believed to be passive receivers of the eternal, uncreated word of God–Jesus Christ and the Qur’an, respectively. Mary was a virgin, meaning that Jesus wasn’t simply the result of normal reproductive means. Similarly, Muhammad was illiterate, meaning that he did not just record the words of the Qur’an on his own. Mary was miraculously pregnant; Muhammad received the word of God by dictation, which his photographic memory retained rather like a tape recorder. Both have historically been venerated.

(I’m not interested in discussing critiques of the virgin birth or the dictation theory of the Qur’an. I’m simply highlighting the proper belief-comparison as discussed in class.)

3. The Bible and the Qur’an are not directly comparable either. The 10 Commandments would perhaps be comparable, because they are believed to have been dictated (actually inscribed) by God. Historically, however, Christians have not officially believed in a dictation theory of the Bible (divine inspiration and dictation are not the same thing). The Qur’an, by contrast, is believed by Muslims to have been dictated by God (through the angel Gabriel), so that it is the direct word of God.

The best analogy for the Bible in Islam, then, is their books on the life and teaching of Muhammad. Muhammad made a distinction between the dictated revelations he received and his own teachings, much like Catholics make a distinction between the pope’s ex cathedra statements and his other teachings. The professor didn’t say whether Muslims consider Muhammad’s non-dictated teachings authoritative, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.

So, an interesting lesson. It won’t do to simply compare Jesus and Muhammad or the Bible and the Qur’an. The proper analogies are, in fact,

  • The Qur’an and Jesus
  • Muhammad and Mary
  • The Bible and books about Muhammad’s life and teachings

Fascinating stuff.

What happens when Sunday is a snow day?

It’s May 1 and we couldn’t make it into the city for church because of a snow storm. IT’S MAY 1 AND WE COULDN’T MAKE IT INTO THE CITY FOR CHURCH BECAUSE OF A SNOW STORM!

It turned out to be a good day, in spite of the blustery weather. We decided to have a little church service of our own. I resisted Dixie’s suggestion that we sing some songs with the kids.

“Go get your guitar,” she said.

“What? What are we going to sing?”

“You have all those song sheets. Play some songs the kids will know from church.”

“No, that’s not gonna work. They’re not going to sing those songs.”

Instead, Dixie and our friend Amanda, who was also not able to get to her church, sang some kids songs with the kids. ‘Father Abraham,’ ‘This Little Light of Mine’, ‘Tutsy-Wutsy.’ I’m not sure that this was much better than trying to get the kids to sing the church songs. What’s the deal with these kids songs? Almost zero content. But the kids enjoyed doing the actions.

Madeline chose a couple of passages from Mark where Jesus heals blind people. She read them and then we asked a few questions. Then I read about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, including Thomas, the doubter. More discussion followed. Resurrection. New bodies.

The kids have all kinds of questions about death and heaven these days.

“When will Bestamore and Great Grandpa be alive again?” asked Olivia during the discussion.

“Will we still be a family in heaven?” wondered Luke later in the day.

Then a lunch of nachos, beef and cheese. Then the kids went off and played, while Dixie and I sat in the living room and read. We listened through all three of the Lord of the Rings film soundtracks. The kids got rowdy and fighty, so we separated them for individual quiet time. Blessed silence. Days should always be compartmentalized like this. More reading.

Then snack time and a game of Uno with the kiddos. Dishes.

High calorie day, folks: nachos, cheese and beef for lunch; crackers, cheese, and handfuls of Cadbury Mini Eggs for snack; and for supper, potatoes, pork & beans, and wieners washed down with a beer.

Showers for the oldest two kids. Bedtime. Opera selections on the stereo, writing this, reading…maybe a movie. Shadowlands.

A good day.

As a father…

In Ephesians 5:21 and following, Paul has some stuff to say about the family–his “instructions for Christian households”. It’s the passage about mutual love and submission between husband and wife. Usually we leave the discussion of love and submission in Ephesians there, but the Tim Perry raised a significant point for me (either in his essay here or in class lectures): that there’s no reason to quit the discussion with the end of the chapter. Instead, the discussion of love and submission carries on into the section addressed to children and slaves at the beginning of chapter 6. This has significant repercussions when one considers family and how it ought to function.

Yesterday and today were not stellar in terms family relations in this particular Vandersluys household. I’m pretty sure we’ve never had a perfect day, but these two days were especially bad: disobedient and ungrateful children, impatient and angry parents, irritable spouses. It was bad news all around. They are days that leave me wondering just how families ought to function. I’m sure we’re “normal”, but I’m not sure we’re “right”.

At any rate, I’ve been thinking today of Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:4: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (NRSV). The NIV tradition softens it a bit, removing the more overt connection to discipline or correction (NEB), which implies something other than instruction: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (TNIV).

Here’s my problem: I suspect that on most days I provoke one or more of my children either to exasperation or anger. I have no idea how to avoid this, because they will naturally rail against any form of discipline they receive from me. I recognize that Paul is not necessarily talking specifically about discipline/punishment but about instruction, but there is an element of discipline involved in this. I certainly cannot imagine how else a father would drive his child to anger.

John Stott’s commentary on this verse has been useful to me in understanding what Paul is on about, but it hasn’t reversed the reality that I fail on this account–by exasperating my children, by “raising them up in the Lord”–on a daily basis.  And the truth is, I’m not sure how to change this. Lord, have mercy.

Unsettling logic and a great weight

It doesn’t happen very often, but every so often I read something that I find unexpectedly unsettling. A couple of years ago it was the first 30 pages of John Ortberg’s If You Want to Walk on Water You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat. Last night it was a post on a blog. It had to do with a hot topic in the church these days. Perhaps it’s just because it’s Saturday and I tend to be gloomy on Saturdays, but for some reason I want to connect my reading of the post and the comments (actually more the comments than the post) to a heightened moodiness today. The gist of many of the comments was “God loves all people and accepts all people, therefore it doesn’t matter what people do” (of course, it was more specific than that).

  • God loves and accepts all people
  • therefore I can live my life however I want to

I accept the first statement as true, but I don’t see a logical progression from there to the second statement. Why does God loving and accepting people preclude moral standards, a vision of what it means to live in a way that is fully human? I don’t know. Yet this is precisely the kind of “logic” that runs both in and out of the church.

The issue in particular isn’t really the point here. It’s this: through the post I was faced with just what it is I am stepping into–that if I really take the vocation seriously, being a pastor isn’t going to be an easy gig. Not that I ever thought it would be–it’s just that it might be a lot more difficult. There are so many questions to be answered that I can’t begin to answer. I’m even less capable if I’m backed into a corner and confronted about something. The Church will have to deal with so many issues in the near future–is dealing with them now, in fact–and I don’t even know where to start. Will I be able to face them? Will I have reasonable answers or at least good reason to say, “I don’t know”? Will I have the strength to face opposition, event to the point of losing my “job” or facing persecution? I get tired just thinking about it.

I don’t know. Maybe the Saturday blues are just making me a little dramatic.

I realize that there are many ways to look at the pastoral vocation (including whether there is such a thing) and at the moment I don’t have the will to engage in a lengthy discussion/debate about it. It’s just this: is it the church’s business to speak prophetically into its world, wherever that might be? And if so, what does that look like in our Western, individualistic culture? Is the Western church equal to that task? Am I?

Or am I being to idealistic? Is the opposite of idealism acquiescence? Is there a “third way”?

Low-ball it and make it a meal.

I’ve been meeting one-on-one with the guys who live in an “intentional community” here in Winnipeg in connection with our denomination. We have “spiritual conversation”–or at least that’s the idea, and we have varying degrees of success meeting to meeting. It’s always good conversation, even if it isn’t always “spiritual” in the strictest sense. But then spiritual in the “strictest” sense may well not be a good thing–might, in fact, be a sort of gnostic dualism. Talking school, girl friends, spiritual life, jobs, family all are, I suppose, in some sense “spiritual”. But I digress.

It seems I’ve started a bit of a trend with at least one of the guys of coming up with memorable catch-phrases in relation to the spiritual disciplines or the personal “life with God” or whatever you want to call it. The first was “low-ball it”, which on its own may sound like terrible advice, but I think it has great value, depending on where a person is at.

As cheesy as catch-phrases tend to be, I have, more or less by accident, developed two catch-phrases so far (they have limited originality, I’m sure). I will share them with you now, with the BIG, HUGE caveat that these words were and are spoken as much to myself as to the guys with whom I’ve been having coffee. These thoughts come not out of seasoned practice in the spiritual life, but out of my reflections on how my own life with God can be improved.

1. Low-ball it, or alternately, aim low. As I say, at first blush this seems like terrible advice. But it’s really just a memorable way of saying “Do something.” It seems to me that it’s better to set the spiritual bar low for yourself and actually maintain your conversation and relationship with God (and thereby build on it), rather than setting the bar way too high (say, at the level you’d like to be at), getting frustrated at your inconsistency (or lack of “results”) and quickly giving up.

Our tendency when, say, creating a Rule of Life, is to shape it to look like the “ideal” spiritual life–the place we’d like to be at in terms of spiritual disciplines. Odds are, however, like big New Year’s resolutions, that we will get frustrated with the idealistic Rule of Life we’ve set up for ourselves and give up. Better to say, “I’m going to read a chapter of scripture each day” or “I will pray for 5 minutes each day” and actually keep it up than to say, “I am going to read scripture for one hour each day and pray for an hour and then sit in silence for 45 minutes”, but give up after a few days.

That’s not to say that we should keep the bar low, but that we should start small. “Baby steps,” as Dr. Leo Marvin would say.

2. Make it a meal. Today I was discussing with one of the guys the common problem of “life getting in the way” of our spiritual habits. It happens to me all the time. Daily, even. The problem is that we see faith and the spiritual life that goes with it as just one more to add to life, so that we have

life over here, and……………………..over here next to it, we have, school, work, church, friends, faith, family, play,
which we need to balance and prioritize.

When, in fact, as our pastor talked about a couple of months ago, faith is a way of life that encompasses all of these other things. Faith is not just an addition to the things of life that needs to be balanced in, but an essential, shaping element of life itself. It’s like food. “Life,” for those of us who live in the affluent west, does not get in the way of us eating three meals a day. In fact, we won’t let it. It doesn’t matter what’s going on with my life–how busy or stressed or discombobulated I am–I will have the meals I have every day. I need food to live.

Those of us who consider and struggle with the spiritual life have a hunger of a different sort–a spiritual hunger, if you will–but it’s easy for us to ignore the hunger or be unsure what it is or how to deal with it, because it does not manifest itself in hunger pangs and grumbly tummies. So to say, “Make it a meal,” is try to create a mental shift in perspective on the spiritual disciplines and to look at them as we would breakfast, lunch, or supper. We recognize that we need those meals and they just become a part of the essential elements of life–not an addition like work or meetings, but simply part of what it means to live day-to-day. Make the disciplines a meal.

There are some others brewing in my head (such as “Do it. Now. Don’t think. Do it.”, which clearly needs an explanation), but what do you think of “Low-ball it” and “Make it a meal”? Am I off my rocker?

Open Hands

I suppose I’d better post something. Two posts of largely non-original material–“Bob Ross” and “Footprints in the Sand“–continue to receive far and away the most hits on this blog, even on a day-to-day basis. I’m not sure what to do about that. Nothing, I suppose.

In the first half of Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, which I have unfortunately not finished, Miroslav Volf writes about giving and how it relates to God. He describes God as pure giver, saying, “In relation to the world…God’s gifts only flow out” (37). He goes on to qualify the giving of God:

When God gives, it’s not a transfer of goods. We receive things from God not because God takes them from here (where God happens to be) and places them there (where we happen to be), but because God is present where we are and is continually giving to us all the things and abilities we have. To return something to God would be like pushing back to the giver the hand that gives (41).

I am, of course, just presenting a skeletal view of what Volf has to say in this section of the book. I found it particularly interesting in what he had to say with respect to faith. The distinction between faith and works has, in recent years, become less clear to me–at least as presented in the evangelical circles I grew up in. Faith is something one must “have” (or possibly “do”) in order to be saved. It is presented as almost a cognitive thing–an act of the intellect. So, I wonder, how is this different than a work?

Volf helps clarify this for me by putting faith in the context of a giving God:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill. That is why, as Luther put it, faith “honors God”; it tells the truth about God and our relation to the divine Giver and ascribes to God what is due (43, emphasis mine).

Is holding my hands open to receive a work? If it is, it’s extremely passive (and borders on laziness!).

Post of the Year

Who am I to say what my post of the year is?  I suppose that should be decided by my readers.

We’ve arrived in Prince Albert and I’m fully into the early stages of the flu: runny nose, aching body, chills, headache. What a way to start the Christmas break!  I suspect it’s as a result of my trying to dig out the van when we hit the ditch the other day. I didn’t have proper snow pants on and spent quite a bit of time out there. Plus, my adrenaline probably ran out when I handed in my last assignment of the semester on Monday.

But I digress. I confess I have neither the will nor the strength scan through all of my 2010 post. No matter–I’m convinced this is the best one. In fact, it may well be the only post I wrote this year that I think is worth reading.

Written on February 19, 2010, it’s a reflection on good, evil, and God, prompted by a Bruce Cockburn song I was listening to at the time. This isn’t a post putting forward tentative theological ideas, as I usually do. These words came from my heart and my guts, which is why, I think, they continue to resonate with me.

* * *

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

* * *
The original post is here if you want to follow the discussion that went with it (comments there are closed, but they are open here).