Archive for the ‘doubt’ Category

(Warner Brothers)

(Warner Brothers)

We got a GPS this past Christmas. We call it Mildred. If we’re going somewhere and we need directions, we just type our destination and hit “Go.” And Mildred sets to work, bouncing signals off a satellite and back, calculating the perfect route (usually) and then – the best part – speaking that route to us, turn by turn.

My friend Lincoln and I took Mildred to Southern California a few weeks ago, where she performed like a champ, guiding us through the freeway system. A few times when we couldn’t get to the exit ramp because of heavy traffic, we’d miss a turn. And Mildred would simply gather herself, recalibrate and tell us the new directions. Once in a while, she would get confused momentarily – especially on cloverleafs, where one road was directly above another – but we could always count on her to figure things out.

Sometimes I wish my life had a GPS, where I could plug in a destination and receive turn-by-turn instructions from Mildred’s firm, confident computer voice. Instead, life usually seems like I’m stuck in a tunnel and Mildred can’t find the satellite. I’m left to take my best guess about the next turn. Sometimes that proves to be the right path. Sometimes I have to recalibrate.

That can be frustrating when all I want is clarity. But then I remember: No great adventure was ever a sure thing. What makes it an adventure is risk – risk of getting lost, risk of failure, risk of letting a lot of people down, even risk of death. The bad thing about a GPS is, it can turn a journey into a boring list of instructions. Sure, you don’t get lost. But in the process, the adventure gets lost with it.

I tend to wander, and I tend not to follow instructions (just ask my wife). I’ve been lost many times, without a map or GPS: In a forest preserve two miles from our house. On a remote national park trail as the sun was setting. In a ridiculously bad neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where I could only think of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold character. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, where we’d wandered much too close to a Hezbollah rally.

Each of those situations became a good story we still talk about – usually in the context of how dumb I was for not carrying a map or GPS. Point taken, if we’re talking about a hike or a drive.

But when we’re talking about life decisions, then I’m back to that adventure thing – how it requires an ever-growing trust in someone I can’t see. Brennan Manning writes in “Ruthless Trust” that he believes that trusting God is, in fact, what it means to love him.

“Why does our trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” Manning writes. “Because trust is the pre-eminent expression of love. Thus, it may mean more to Jesus when we say, ‘I trust you,’ than when we say, ‘I love you.’”

Those words help. I wrestle with doubts about my faith all the time. The bottom line, though, is that my wife and I have loved God enough to trust him, and to take a big risk, not knowing where the road leads. We’ve sold our nice home and I’ve left a comfortable career – certainties in life – in order to pursue something crazy, something great. We have no idea how this story will turn out.

I watched “Argo” last night, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, is laying out his crazy-sounding plan to the diplomats: They’ll pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The six are less than convinced. Mendez tells them it’s their best hope.

That’s why I’m here,” he says. “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. I get people out and I’ve never left anyone behind. I’m asking you to trust me.”

Sometimes, a film that has nothing to do with God can bowl me over with a God moment. Right now, if our lives were a movie, we’d be at that critical point where the audience isn’t sure whether the heroes are going to make it.

And I can sense God saying to me the exact words Mendez used.

I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. … I’m asking you to trust me.

We want an airtight plan with guarantees. Or at least we think we do. God says, “Trust me.”

Do I love him enough to do that? I want to.

Manning writes:

The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”

And So This is Christmas?

Posted: December 18, 2012 by Jim Killam in books, disillusionment, doubt
"The Slaughter of the Innocents," Tintoretto, 1587

“The Slaughter of the Innocents,” Tintoretto, 1587

“When the heart-strings are suddenly cut, it is, I believe, a physical impossibility to feel faith or resignation. There is a revolt of the instinctive and animal system, and though we may submit to God, it is rather by constant painful effort than sweet attraction.”

– Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing to a friend who had experienced tragedy.

I haven’t watched one minute of TV news since last Friday. That’s certainly not because I don’t care about the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve been reading newspaper accounts and praying for those families. But TV images are more than I want to deal with.

Almost five years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008, a disturbed young man walked onto an auditorium stage at Northern Illinois University and started shooting. Before he took his own life, he’d shot 23 people, killing five. One of those killed was Dan Parmenter, a student of ours at the Northern Star, the daily student newspaper where I was the adviser.  Several other students who I knew well, either through the paper or the classroom, made it out of Cole Hall physically uninjured.

I accompanied a group of student journalists to the immediate aftermath, and took photos that would appear the next morning on front pages of newspapers all over the world. We all wish we could “un-see” what we saw that afternoon.

Where was God in all of that? Where was God last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Honestly, I have no idea. And I think anyone who thinks they have a lock on it has probably never experienced something like this up-close. Sure, I can find theological answers about how we live in a corrupt and evil world and how God has indeed made the ultimate costly provision to save us. I get that.

But what about those kids?

I’m still not sure where God was 20 years ago when my wife’s sister and her husband were killed by a drunk driver. I vividly remember a woman at the funeral telling our family, “God needed them in heaven more than we needed them here.” That’s idiotic theology and if anyone really believed that, they’d absolutely hate God.

Not that I’ve felt any great love for God in the immediate aftermath of tragedies. Just helplessness. We want to understand, to make sense of it all. This week, we want to blame guns, or mental illness, or video games, or our violent culture in general. And all of those things may play some part. We might make some strides with legislation and increased knowledge about what makes people do things like this. But there will be no satisfaction in trying to make sense of evil when awful things keep happening to innocent people.

So where does all of this leave us with God, a week before Christmas?

We don’t like to focus on this, naturally. But Christmas, from the beginning, has been tragically connected with the murder of innocent kids. King Herod, feeling threatened by the presence of the baby Jesus, ordered the slaughter of all boys age 2 and under in and around Bethlehem. (Matthew 2) Imagine what that must have been like for those families.

Faith doesn’t always come easily for me. I want it all to make sense, to be able to reason it through logically and come to an inarguable conclusion. Tragedies like last Friday’s throw all of that into a tailspin, and our response is to quickly look away rather than confront an ugly reality. Horrible, evil things happen. God for some reason allows them to happen, and the scales of justice never really seem back in balance.

I do know that God is present in pain – much more visibly than during the good times. I read the Psalms and see David crying out to God about the unfairness of it all. And I now that God knows, and cares, and loves, even when I can’t understand.

Brennan Manning wrote in “Ruthless Trust”: “Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded. … We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way. In his eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention and publicity. On the last day, Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.”

Incomplete as that answer seems to me, it’s all I’ve got. Rather than avert my eyes to pain in this world, I can lean into it … and at the same time, lean into the God who can be trusted, and ask him to use me in some small way. It’s a change in focus, and changes my question from a futile “Why?” to a hopeful “What?”

No, It Doesn’t Make Sense — And That’s OK

Posted: November 26, 2012 by Lincoln Brunner in doubt, fear, missional living
Tags: , ,

Acts 10 tells an earth-shaking story — angels, terror, visions of animals moving up and down on a big sheet like a linen dumbwaiter from heaven. Maybe you’ve read it.

It’s trippy stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s just about two guys obeying God when it makes no sense to do so. And it ends up changing the world.

On the one end, you have Peter, the head of the first Christian church, being told to kill animals clearly labeled unclean in the Law of Moses — and then to stop labeling things “unclean” that God has made. It’s clear later on that Peter understands this to mean people; but for the moment, that’s all he’s got.

On the other end, you have a Roman centurion in Caesarea named Cornelius being commanded by an angel to send for a Jewish guy named Simon Peter who was staying at some leather worker’s house in the city of Joppa. OK … Peter. Simon the Tanner. Joppa. Got it.

So the Roman official sends for the Jew to come before him. Peter’s seen this game before.

But this time, Peter’s gotten a sneak preview. God’s calling an audible, and Peter understands the new route. This isn’t Jesus before Pilate. And it won’t be a Roman handing down death this time — it’ll be a Roman accepting new life.

This is the first short-term cross-cultural missions trip. Paul gets all the props with the whole Antioch-to-Cyprus adventure — he did have to take a boat, after all. However, Peter was the true pioneer with his Joppa-to-Caesarea trip — a distance of only about 30 miles by land, but the distance traveled was far more than Peter had to walk. There was no precedent for this, no doctrinal basis by which to measure actions. There was just God telling Peter and Cornelius to trust Him.

On parchment, it made no sense — a Jew visiting a Gentile, and a Roman at that. But God had chosen his players carefully, two men willing to obey at the drop of a hat, sensible edict or not. And even then, he had to shock them into it. To one he sent an angel which frankly scared the pants off him. To the other he sent an acid-trip vision of animals he was supposed to kill and eat on the spot. “Paging Hunter S. Thompson … report to the killing floor immediately.”

No, God wasn’t messing around on this one, because too much was at stake. The gospel was sequestered within the Jewish community. It had to get out. Jesus had tipped his hand right before the ascension, and now he was putting legs under His game plan — Peter’s legs, to be specific. “Go, Peter, and don’t call them unclean. I made them. Got it?”

So Peter goes, tells them the story, preaches the gospel, and Cornelius and all his household get saved. Just like that. Even the die-hard skeptics back in Jerusalem, when they got Peter’s report, couldn’t do anything but praise God for the beauty of what happened that night at Cornelius’ place. What started out sounding crazy ended up looking amazing and wonderful — kind of like the gospel itself.

So if you find yourself being led to do something for God that sounds nuts to the people around you, even to yourself, don’t listen to conventional wisdom — listen to the voice telling you to do it. If it sounds like the same voice that’s comforted you in pain, answered you when you’ve called out to Him in the past, and led you to where you are now, ask yourself:

Is it crazier to do this, or to not do it?

 

Faith in a Drought

Posted: October 9, 2012 by Jim Killam in disillusionment, doubt, fear, missions, nature

A stiff, cold wind blew in yesterday. It took our spectacular fall color and whipped most of it to the ground. That’s a harsh reminder of one season ending and a long, cold Illinois winter perhaps starting early.

The cold wind also bookends a terrible drought year, when it was tough for anything to grow and thrive, and when dirt and dust covered just about everything around here.

For my wife and me, the drought extended into most of life. It’s been an especially dry season of raising support for our upcoming missions work. With a couple of notable exceptions, possibilities that had looked promising simply dried up and blew away. I worked hard all summer and, like the farmers around here, I saw little payoff for all of that toil. Just a lot of indifference, outright rejection or simply being ignored. Plus, unlike the farmers, we didn’t have crop insurance. If God doesn’t come through, we are sunk.

Didn’t I just sacrifice a career? Didn’t we just sacrifice our home and comfort, to follow God’s clear calling on our lives? Aren’t we living in a shed? And the result so far is … frustration and disappointment? Really?

A drought becomes a vivid reminder that so much of life, and even our ability to sustain life, is beyond our control and incredibly fragile. A dry season turns us to God in a way that abundance does not. It’s human nature to tell God “please” a lot more than “thank you.” Our need for him, and the fallacy of self-reliance, becomes so much more obvious in a drought.

A drought favors plants with deep and healthy root systems. It favors good soil rather than shallow, rocky soil (Matthew 13:6, the Parable of the Sower – “But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”) Things that we relied on, but were far more fragile than we realized, get stripped away. Only those things with the deepest roots survive – and even they sustain some damage.

So, what was stripped away for us in this year of spiritual drought? First, our nice home. Then our comfortable income. Both of those were voluntary steps of faith, and though we didn’t say it, I think we expected a reward. Instead, our modest savings dwindled. We lost comfort and convenience – the ability to simply take a shower, or cook a meal, without planning. We lost confidence in our abilities to restore that comfort and convenience. Pride in accomplishments evaporated. All of that admiration received when I quit my job to follow a calling? A distant memory now. Ultimately, we lost confidence that, in response to our steps of faith, God would act when and how we wanted him to act.

And now, 10 months into our spiritual drought, what remains? What has grown improbably?

Our faith looks different today. Tired of comfort and safety, we willingly (if not always enthusiastically) ceded those things. There is no more predictability to life, and that can be frustrating. That sense of adventure and excitement we were counting on does show up more, but it isn’t constant. It’s sometimes punctuated by serious doubt, as in “What did we just do?” And this after some previous dark seasons where hope seemed only a hollow promise.

We have learned, far more vividly than ever before, what it looks like to rely on God for absolutely everything – how, when comfort and convenience are stripped away, God becomes more visible.

But, while visible, God also can be frustratingly silent in a drought. Often, our cries for help seem to go no further than the ceiling. We found ourselves with the unspoken feeling that God owed us success in raising our support after we took such a big step of faith. And the “reward” was … days and weeks where no one – and I do mean no one – responded to my letters, phone calls and emails about the calling God has given me. (Do you know how discouraging it is for missionaries when people won’t even return a phone call or a personal email? Even a “no” is better than being ignored.) Meanwhile, bugs, vermin and bad smells remind us that we are indeed living in a farm shed. What once felt like an adventure is now a lot harder and less fun.

But we cling to God anyway, because we’ve received a calling and we have nowhere else to go. Like the Spanish explorer Cortez, we have burned the ships. There is no turning back, and there are no guarantees of safety ahead. I think of a line from Pete Sommer’s book, “Getting Sent”: “The road we are sent on is not smooth, but it goes Godward.”

And I start to realize … maybe this is what faith really looks like.

Letter to a Newbie

Posted: August 23, 2012 by Lincoln Brunner in doubt, nostalgia, writing

My wife found the letter — hand-typed, with the correction-tape scars to prove it — in a box in the basement.

The letter was written on March 30, 1993, by a Chicago Tribune columnist to a young journalist dreaming of the big time. Back then, before the Internet swallowed our newspapers like a whale gobbling krill, the “big time” meant papers like the Trib. That still is the big time, I think, but not like the days of the monoliths, when giants mediated truth. Back then, even two short paragraphs on real Chicago Tribune letterhead meant something.

But what a punch those two grafs packed for me, a greenhorn working on a college weekly for minimum wage. I read every word, over and over, like a kid savoring a note from Santa Claus himself:

Dear Lincoln Brunner–

Thank you for your letter and the enclosed editorial. I’m flattered that you would want to some day be a journalist–it’s great to know that talented people want to enter a field that can often be more difficult than it is glamorous. I realize that the competition for journalists is keen, and so breaking into the field will prove to be a challenge, but perseverance will pay off. Judging by your writing, I would say that you are most certainly on the right path.

There are many great stories to be found, and I wish you the best in finding those that help you on your path to success.

Sincerely,

 Bob Greene

Almost 20 years on, reading those words again this morning refreshes my soul. For a major league columnist like Greene to take the time to write to a complete unknown (heck, I’m still a complete unknown, just with experience) … wow. I remember now how much that letter boosted my confidence, and how that bit of confidence helped keep me going through what would be a critical time in my life and career.

I landed my first reporting gig a little more than a year after the letter arrived, a general assignment job that taught me almost everything I know about reporting.

So thanks, Bob Greene, wherever you are. Your two paragraphs helped launch a journalism career two decades old now — and by God’s grace, they have been a success.

And you were right — perseverance does pay off.

Sometimes I really relate to Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump.” In this scene, the Gary Sinise character reaches his breaking point with disappointment, heartache and failure. In the face of a hurricane, and in a one-way conversation, Dan has it out with God.

Sometimes, faith just bottoms out.

“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call … ?”

That was written by that great backslider, Mother Teresa, as she struggled with her work in Calcutta. Some of her journals and letters wound up in a 2007 book. I stumbled upon that specific entry online a few weeks ago. Unknowingly, I’d just written something similar in my own journal, during a particularly bad week as a dad:

“God, I feel like I am hanging onto my faith by my fingernails. I am so tired of unanswered prayers, destroyed hopes and … just heaviness. How much more are you going to let pile up on us? Often it seems like you have just checked out on our family. How can I honestly tell people that Christ is the answer they’re looking for, when I’m left feeling empty so often … like my prayers never get past the ceiling? Some days I wonder if my faith is even real. Is this how life is always going to be now? Do you even care? Please renew my strength, hope and faith. I don’t know why we’re in this storm that never seems to end, but please help. Show yourself faithful and worthy of my trust. Please.”

Philip Yancey, one of my journalistic heroes, writes that in a time of disillusionment, he went a year where the only prayers he could muster came out of a book of prayers. I can identify with that. Sometimes, I’ve got absolutely nothing.

I think just about any Christ follower with a brain has had days/weeks/months/years like that. I don’t mind wrestling with doubt – in the end it solidifies my belief and helps me separate truth from assumption. Those wrestling matches aren’t fun, though. Sometimes, waves of doubt swamp my intellect. I just don’t have it in me to be a “God said, I believe it and that settles it” kind of Christian. Surely I can possess a faith that includes room for doubt, and challenge, and intellectual sharpening.

David had that kind of faith. As I read through the Psalms – not just the happy ones that got turned into worship choruses – I see some dark, dark moments. Doubt. Anger. Despair. It’s all there.

I think of a quote by the great sports writer Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” That could just as easily be applied to real, heartfelt conversations with God.

Through the centuries, the Church has had a tough time being honest about doubt. It’s been treated as a sign of spiritual weakness, not to be openly discussed. As a result, far too many intelligent people walked away from the Church and never came back.

One of the really good things happening today among missional-minded churches (and others, too) is an openness to the fact that faith is a struggle sometimes. Some churches, including mine, have experimented with something we call Doubt Nights. Usually held in a bar or coffee house, they’re an opportunity for anyone to raise hard questions. “Did Adam and Eve really exist?” “How do I know the Bible is all true?” Or the even more honest, “Why does God seem so absent in my toughest times?”

I don’t have all those answers, and I don’t like hanging out with people who think they do. Because often, those are the people who have never endured any real trial. So we talk about those questions, offer guidance where we can, and acknowledge that even when the Bible finally makes sense, life most of the time does not.

God and I are on better terms again lately. Circumstances haven’t really changed, but writing that letter to him helped to distill my confusion and disappointment and, yes, anger. Hey, it’s not like he didn’t already know.

As Donald Miller wrote in “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”: “When you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.”