Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Doubt As Faith: What Dr. Dwight Peterson Can Teach Youth (and all of us)

When I was in high school I thought doubt was the lack of faith. Somehow I assumed very bad things were in store should I take my last breath before I was able to banish all questions about the existence of God, the Christian confession of Jesus as God in human form, and the resurrection as a real event that pointed to life beyond the grave.

I spent many sleepless nights afraid of my doubts. I feared not having enough faith. Questions about everything I had ever been taught about Christianity, the Bible, and what it meant to follow Jesus were linked to mistrust and even sin lurking at my door.

So I refused to share my doubts and instead adorned a personality and characterization as someone who had it all figured out.

I also lived in fear. Every time a doubt about ________ popped into my head, I dreaded laying my head down on the pillow that night. I feared falling asleep. I wondered if I would ever be able to sleep.

Then I met Thomas in John 20. He became my favorite disciple by far.

While this disciple is often characterized as a doubter, "Doubting Thomas," he really is the only disciple with enough audacity, courage, and faith to dig deeper into the rumors of Jesus' supposed resurrection.

Did it really happen? Seriously, I need to experience Jesus' renewed life firsthand.

And he did. Thomas would even go on to be one of the earliest and most effective missionaries of the first century and Christian history. Some suggest he brought the gospel to India. I am sure he never stopped doubting and asking the hard questions.

I also met this anonymous father in Mark 9.

The disciples, and surely the father, are frustrated by their inability to heal this man's possessed son. They had done everything Jesus had commanded and said all the right things in efforts to prevent this child from a premature death sparked by some sort of demonic, seizure-inducing possession. So when Jesus asked the father a few questions, he responds with a bit of jadedness, cynicism, and doubt, "but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us!"

Jesus retorts right back, "If you are able!- All things can be done for the one who believes."

I imagine the father pausing, thinking to himself, that's the problem. You don't understand. We have tried everything. I have lived all my days in fear that this would happen and there would be nothing left. I feared my doubts would win in the end. I believed only to be disappointed.

Yet I believe, Jesus, help my unbelief!

This is quite possibly the greatest prayer recorded in Scripture. It's one I pray quite regularly. And every now and again I am given a glimpse of resurrection, like the child in Mark's gospel who is lifted from a coma, and invited to hold on hope for another day.

Yet when I have recently pondered faith and doubt, I cannot think of a more faithful witness to the good news of God's grace than one of my most beloved college professors and mentors, Dr. Dwight Peterson. Thanks to Dr. Peterson, I will never read one of my favorite gospel stories the same again. I also will never fear doubt again, or at least when I do, I will look to those who know where to find faith.

I am not sure what exactly happened between the age of Thomas and 2014 (suggestion: the Enlightenment), but faith and doubt have assumed the role of opponents. They are like opposite sides of a coin, protagonist and antagonist of a great narrative. While we live in an age of cynicism, celebrate mystery, and shove aside anything wreaking of absolute certainty, the Christian church has managed to cling to the false dichotomy: faith v. doubt.

Those who follow Jesus, especially heroes of the faith and brilliant theologians like Dr. Peterson, never doubt, right? At least they shouldn't, correct?

Yet faith needs doubt. Doubt demands faith. They are far from opposites and, when you scan the pages of both history and Scripture, one of the most common traits of those called and used by God has been, not faith, rather doubt.

"doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”

Paul Tillich

I wonder if that's because doubt pushes us towards one another, reminds us that we cannot do life alone, and moves us beyond the idol of certainty that none of us will ever be able to appease?

And we were never meant to...

This does not mean quest for more doubt, it simply means doubt is not our or the church's enemy.

So as I prepare a youth talk on sharing doubts and creating sacred space for questioning, here are a few truths I cling to as a pilgrim with more than enough faithful doubt:

  1. There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God in Christ, neither death nor doubt...not even doubting this to be true.
  2. You are not alone in your doubts; the faithful have always been doubtful.
  3. Doubts are not to be pursued alone. Doubts are to be confessed and adventured through alongside others and within the community of faith. Gone are the days of burning heretics at the stake, so you are safe. Well, some may talk about you in a few books/blogs by certain authors and publishers, but they are not worth reading anyway. Yet God loves them, too.
  4. Doubt can often lead to stronger faith and a more honest and authentic witness. But not always.
  5. Intellectual and academic certainty has never been the goal of discipleship. Trust, obedience, and a concern for our most vulnerable neighbors are more telling fruits of those who claim to follow Jesus.
  6. Faith is not the absence of doubt. And doubt is certainly not the absence of faith. They push on one another and draw God's people closer to Jesus, who is the object of our faith, subject of our hope, and Lord of all things seen and unseen.
  7. Doubt becomes a demon when we become so steeped in cynicism that we no longer know how to love and live with joy. Faith becomes an idol when we no longer make space for our doubts and/or the doubts of others, falsely assuming we have figured everything out and have a cpyright on truth.
  8. Jesus doubted. If you question, just take a look at his prayers before the crucifixion. Maybe read Psalms, which N.T. Wright calls "Jesus' prayer book."

May the God who made and loves us all, draw us ever closer to the One who lived and died for us all, and fill us all with God's Spirit.

And may the perfect love of this God cast out all fear...especially when we doubt.

 

A few helpful links and resources, especially for parents and youth workers:

Sticky Faith: http://stickyfaith.org/articles/i-doubt-it

Simply Youth Ministry: http://blogs.nsb.org/students/files/2013/03/Week_1_-_Doubt_and_Fear.pdf

*A great chapter in, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, by Andrew Root and Kenda Dean: "Doubt and Confirmation."

Related post on Confirmation: http://gregklimovitz.blogspot.com/2013/04/confirmation-questions-what-i-wonder.html

Older post by Kathy Escobar: http://kathyescobar.com/2009/09/22/doubt-amp-faith-thewild-beautiful-rid

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Derek Webb, Phantom Power, and Hope That's Not Wasted

I guess you can say Derek Webb's narrative as a musician and artist is somewhat of the story of many within my generation. When it comes to all things Christian and church, we have moved from faith to doubt, trust to disdain, love to fear, and hope to cynicism. Many have repeated this cycle more times than they care to recount. We want to follow, but have been wearied by half-truths and misplaced allegiances. We long to covenant with faith communities and call them our own, yet we have seen through the fa├žade and wondered if it is really worth it. The addage goes, we love Jesus but struggle with the church.

And if we are honest, we struggle with the reality that we are no better than those we critique and cast judgment upon.

In the midst of it all, the lyrics to one of the songs on Webb's inaugural solo album echoes throughout time:

‘Cause I haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her

if you love me you will love the church

---"The Church," She Must and Shall Go Free

So we, as other rag tag poets have exclaimed,* hold on hope as we pilgrimage through seasons of faith, doubt, and utter confusion together. We cling to, maybe foolishly, the confession and promise that the day is coming when everything will change and nothing will be the same. We press on with the conviction that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection will lead us all to a better way and a better day.

This is what pushes us beyond our cynicism and moves us towards fresh expressions of love, grace, generosity, and forgiveness even when we don't feel like it.

That being said, I am conviced that Derek Webb's latest album, I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You, is quite possibly his best. It's a humble confession and an honest reach beyond jadded and jagged postures that have characterized many of us.

I met Derek Webb several years ago, collaborating together on the Jesus for President Tour and orchestrating a small show at our church. I was grateful for his humility, authenticity, creativity, and patience as we hunted for phantom power on the church sound board. We have utilized this feature many times since.

We also enjoyed some pretty incredible crab cakes that night.

Yet, over five years later, I am even more grateful for his recent folk hymn that, with raw simplicity, invites us to join the choral invocation:

"One day you'll wake and the curse will break
And even you won't be the same

Your hope is not wasted on the day when everything will change"

"Everything Will Change," I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You

I guess you could say this hope is everything but a phantom power. My prayer is that all of us, myself included, would follow Derek's lead and confess our propensity towards cynicism and move towards renewed love.

Notes:

* Yep, Mumford & Sons

**Check Out Rachel Held Evans and her blog interview with Derek Webb: http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-derek-webb-response

Relevant Magazine has several great pieces on Derek Webb: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/tags/derek-webb

 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Malala Yousafzai, John Stewart, and Reminders That the Kingdom of God Belongs to Children

As a Christian, I believe peace, nonviolent resitance, forgiveness, and enemy love are staples of the faith and essential teachings of Jesus Messiah.

So this weekend, as a part of our middle school youth retreat, I thought I would do my best to illustrate Walter Wink's classic interpretation of Jesus' call to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek.*

I had done this before, usually as a part of our confirmation curriculum, but I had never had a reaction quite like the one elicited by one of my sixth grade girls.

She played the role of a first-century Palestinian Jewish peasant.

I played the role of a first-century Roman soldier.

After explaining the Roman laws about forced labor and pack-carrying "etiquette," I piled up on this petite sixth grader my computer bag, a few books, and a stool. I then commanded her to follow me around the room. And when I told her the one-mile limit had been met, she demanded to go a second.

"You are free to go now," I said as I tried to take back my stuff.

"I am going a second mile," she timidly retorted as she pulled back.

"No, you are free to go." I grabbed at the stool.

"I want to go a second mile with you." She gripped the stool tighter.

"You can't." I reached for the bag on her shoulder.

"That doesn't matter." She readjusted and clamped on the bag's strap.

"Why are you doing this?"

"My teacher told me to go the second mile," she spoke with a quiver.

"Who is your teacher?"

"Jesus. Jesus told me to do this."

I froze. I was not expecting God to move me through this sixth grader and her unprompted and unrehearsed exchange.

The youth pastor followed the lead of this sixth grader, arms full of his stuff. I was drawn into how she played the part and knew the Way of her teacher. The roles reversed and the smaller sixth grader had shifted the balance of power without force or violence. Resistance through nonviolent rhetoric animated with authenticity and humility.

Thank you, Jenna. Indeed, the kingdom of God belongs to children like you!

I have occasionally been warned, and have even hesitated myself, about teaching Jesus' third way in Matthew 5:38-42. After all, it may not be in line with their parents' teachings. Youth may mis-hear the teaching and respond to violence in a way that places them at greater risk.

They may not fully understand what Jesus was actually saying.

Then I think of this particular sixth grader, and others like her, and reconsider.

I also think of sixteen-year old Malala Yousafzai, who was able to leave John Stewart speechless and in awe whe she spoke about what she would say if she met a member of the Taliban. Mind you, the Taliban attempted,and nearly succeeded, to kill her with a bullet to the head in 2012.****

I need to read Malala's book. We all need to hear her speech here.

May we never underestimate youthful animations of peacemaking and prophetic expressions of nonviolent resitance. May we never refuse them the keys of the kingdom and space to think about third-way conflict resolutions.

May we never forget that the peaceable kingdom of God belongs to children.

May we even follow their lead as they animate the Way of Jesus.

 

Note:

*Excerpt from Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resitance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink.

"Imagine, then, the soldier's surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume hispack, and the civilian says, "Oh, no, let me carry it another mile." Why would he want to do that? What is heup to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and willnot stop'. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire's strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble? From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability ofhis victim's response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished,he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus' hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.

Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious,or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize anonerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual world transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or underthe thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity" (182).

**Other great reads by Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium, and the abbreviated text of the work cited above, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way.

***See a previous post, More Creative Than Violence.

****Interesting alternative perspectives:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/assed-baig/malala-yousafzai-white-saviour_b_3592165.html?just_reloaded=1&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/12/world/asia/pakistanis-cant-decide-is-malala-yousafzai-a-heroine-or-western-stooge.html?pagewanted=2

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Not in My Backyard: Racism, Athletics, and the Community of Coatesville

[update: since I posted this yesterday there has been significant increase in both local and national media attention, likely due to last night's heated CASD board meeting. Nonetheless, there is so much work to do.]

Maybe it's because some people have already assumed and dismissed Coatesville as a hopeless city whose education system is beyond repair.

Maybe it's because many have grown accustomed to hearing about extortion and corruption through the deviant practicies of this school board's administrators, so we are numb to yet another report.

Maybe it's because Coatesville Area School District is made up of a large populous of low-income minorities whom many still dismiss despite years of "progress" in regards to Civil Rights and racial reconciliation. I wonder what the press would have been like if this happened in a more affluent district?

Maybe it's because many prefer to talk about Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Korea, and China because the injustices exercised in these parts of the world are a safe distance away and do not really affect people we actually know. After all, we can trivialize and politicize these "news stories" because they don't really have much of a personal impact on us.

At least not yet.

But when it comes to the numerous racist, bigoted, and misogynist texts exchanged by the superintendent of the Coatesville Area School District and high school athletic director, not much has been discussed beyond the local borders. When thousands of dollars intended for education are spent on pricey athletic equipment for a team school districts next door compete against [read: wealthier school districts], most are uninformed and naive at best. When students and their teachers of color are lumped together with a single word by these same "leaders" in our community, the same word that generated endless chatter in the media when elicited by a pro football player at a Chesney concert, facebook and twitter streams are not nearly as active.

And I am just as much at fault.

Maybe that's because backyard injustice and hometown hatred is harder to wrap our brains around. It demands more than tweets, blogs, and partisan facebook posts. Instead, when violent rhetoric, unethical spending, and racial slurs we thought were confined to a historical time and place are resurrected and affect our local neighbors, kids' teachers and peers, and the communities we call home, we are held responsible to do more than talk.

And that may come at a cost.

I am not sure what all that has transpired in my community over the past month means for my family and I and how God may be calling us to respond. Our kids are merely two-and-a-half and who knows how long we will live here. But I do know that my neighbor teaches in the public schools, the kids all around us study in the public schools, a few of my youth at the church attend the local high school and compete in related athletic programs, and we pay school taxes.

And racism, hatred, and unethical spending that exploits my neighbors and their kids cannot be tolerated.

We are our brother's and sister's keeper.

Coatesville Area School District deserves better. Residents of Coatesville and surrounding towns can be better. The Coatesville area is where we live and where God has called us to care for the community and all those who dwell within:

"But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Jeremiah 29:7

What about your neighborhood? Where may God be calling you to seek the peace of your community and city?

Let's brainstorm together. Let's live into God's dreams together. May we never forget that the welfare of our neighbors and neighborhoods is directly connected to our own.