As a child growing up in the church, if there was one message I heard over and over again, it was that God was in control, and most importantly, God loved us — and we actually had fun.
This was a comforting message and environment. Furthermore, the themes of joy and God’s defeat of evil became even more prominent during my teen years.
But then youth group ended, and I entered the realm of adult Christendom: political causes, doctrinal debates, worship wars, traditional vs. modern bickering, congregational infighting, gossip, church splits, corporate boycotts, moral rage, judgment, and fear.
My personal theology is a bit of a haphazard salad, and some of the odder items in the Bible make me pretty sure we aren’t supposed to follow the Good Book word for word. But I’d like to believe there’s Someone up there somewhere, and surely some Bible stories will teach my kids moral lessons that will help them grow up into the fine, upstanding people I want them to be. Right?
So I buy a book of bible stories — a charming little book filled with fluffy sheep and smiling cartoon people in tunics and sandals — telling myself it’ll be Aesop’s fables plus Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, with the extra heft of blessings from the Big Guy Upstairs. I sit down to pick out our first story.
And I can’t.
What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.
Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.
The day after Easter, it snowed. I was carrying in my last buckets of sap before leaving for Portland and was not surprised by the flurries, but they still stymied my expectations of warmer weather. The equinox had passed several weeks before, and while the start of spring had been marked on the calendar, it was (is) dragging its feet in coming.
Who has known the mind of God or even a good 7-day weather forecast?
We see and know in part. Certainty has never been the steady state of the human condition. Our lives are stretched with the awareness that clarity, at its best, comes with a smudge.
The experience of knowing we do not know can be felt in different ways. One is confusion, another, mystery. Both are confrontations of the hidden or unknown, but one brings us to awe and the other despair. One can leave us feeling isolated and the other in wonder at our relationship to that which is so much greater than ourselves.
The space between the two is not in the level of knowledge but rather our relationship to the knowing and unknowing itself. In the midst of our unknowing, we are faced with a choice: passive uncertainty or the stumbling action of faith. The beginning of wisdom is not the expectation of certainty with knowledge but the understanding that the kind of life most worth living is always an act of faith.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is expected to launch his presidential campaign April 13, often talks about faith and wrote about his religious convictions in his 2012 book, An American Son: A Memoir.
Here are five faith facts about this Catholic son of Cuban immigrants who has also found comfort in Mormonism and a Southern Baptist church:
1. He was once a serious young Mormon.
Rubio’s parents baptized him Catholic and he is now a practicing Catholic, but when he was 8, his family moved from South Florida to Las Vegas, where his mother attributed the wholesomeness of the neighborhood to the influence of the Mormon Church. Young Rubio was baptized again, this time in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He spent three years as a Mormon, upheld its teachings more enthusiastically than his parents, and chided his father for working as a bartender, a no-no for Mormons who abstain from alcohol.
2. He frequents a Southern Baptist megachurch.
Rubio and his wife Jeannette often visit Miami’s Christ Fellowship, a Southern Baptist congregation the couple appreciates for its strong preaching and children’s programs. Rubio has donated at least $50,000 to the church, which he attended almost exclusively from 2000 to 2004. But he now finds his religious home in Catholic churches in Washington, D.C. and Florida. In his memoir, Rubio writes that he will go with his family to Christ Fellowship on Saturday nights, and Mass on Sundays at St. Louis Catholic Church. His children have received First Holy Communion.
A couple of folks I really respect – Kate Gould of Friends Committee on National Legislation (aka, the Quaker Lobby), and Jim Wallis of Sojourners – were recently on the O’Reilly Factor. For those of you who don’t watch cable news, this is a television program where Bill O’Reilly basically screams at people and incites hatred of anything non-white, non-rich, and non-Republican. I normally don’t watch the show. But when I heard that Kate and Jim were going to be talking, I tuned in.
I knew almost immediately this wasn’t going to be good. It’s Bill’s program, so he gets to frame the question. Here’s what he asks: Do Christian pacifists have a solution for stopping ISIS?
It’s the wrong question.
We’ve lost Leonard Nimoy. Justly famous as Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock, he was also a poet, musician, and photographer. And he was my role model.
I was 10 when I discovered Star Trek—and I immediately gravitated toward the taciturn Vulcan who embraced logic and science even as he wrestled with deep human emotion. The resemblance between Spock and the pre-teen me would have been startling had I recognized it as such; instead, I only saw a character who embodied the conflicts I felt—intellectually and emotionally.
Nimoy was a supporter of equal rights. For example, he convinced Paramount to end the pay inequity Nichelle Nichols experienced during the original Star Trek series. Later, he refused to sign on to the animated Star Trek series until Nichelle Nichols and George Takei were hired to voice their own characters. Away from Star Trek, he challenged “definitive” elements of beauty with The Full Body Project photographs.
But why did Nimoy—why does any man—work to end sexism and discrimination?
Simply: It’s the right thing to do. That ought to be all anyone needs. At the very least, he did it for co-workers whom he respected.
Men who want to “Live Long and Prosper” work to make that possible for everyone, so that their claims to value justice for all have integrity.
I have a confession to make. I have not always been very fair with the church, and for that I apologize.
In an effort to share my love and passion for my faith, I have picked and poked and criticized the church, and maybe that is a bit unfair. I have been a minister going on six years, and during that time, I have been the best and the worst that the church can offer.
I have a certain understanding of the way a church should operate, and when I do not see that being played out in the communities around me, it makes me upset: upset about the way God is presented, upset about the droves of people who will miss out on a life-changing relationship with God, and upset that I cannot change everything.
It's difficult for me as a young minister to slow down and be reflective in the face of impending decline and danger of closures for many of our congregations.
It's not easy being a minister today, and I guess it’s easier to take out my frustrations on the church instead looking for that 'silver lining.'
But I have a come to the conclusion that maybe all is not lost.
Coach Smith planned his funeral so that the music and Scripture would reflect his deeds and the values of his heart:
- Howard Lee, the first African-American mayor in North Carolina, read 1 Corinthians 13. Through the reading, Coach reminded us that God is Love.
- We sang “Now Thank We All Our God.” Through the hymn, Coach stressed he was so grateful for God’s grace that he could not help but show his gratitude through service to others.
- His granddaughter, Morgan, read Matthew 25. Through it, Coach told us that what counts is how we treat the “least of these” — for that is how we treat Jesus.
- We sang “Amazing Grace.” Through it, Coach reminded us that its melody and lyrics are so transcendent that they are sung even by those at the most advanced stages of dementia (and they include Coach and my own mother who died last year).
- We departed to “Lift High the Cross.” Through it, Coach uplifted us from our sorrow with a reminder that ours is a faith of triumph.
So it’s almost Valentine’s Day. Seemingly everywhere you look is a celebration of love and romance. There’s so much sweetness in the air (and on store shelves), it has almost the opposite effect.
Especially if you’re single. Valentine’s Day is often one of the most uncomfortable days of the year. It’s that one special day a year in which single people are painfully reminded that we may very well die alone and childless. Unfortunately, in our romance and sex-saturated culture, every day kind of reminds you of that.
The church hasn’t offered much by way of alternatives. In the evangelical church, there’s far too much “Jesus is my boyfriend” or “I’m dating Jesus”-type songs and teaching that it trivializes the kind of intimacy that can exist between God and humanity. And it silences the deeper pain of loneliness and disappointment that single adults — both gay and straight — can feel. Humans were made for relationship with God, but we were also made for relationships with each other.
There are a couple of issues at work here. On one hand, we’re fed so much junk about sex and romance and relationships from our culture that it becomes difficult to think any differently about love. When the highest, most celebrated form of love in our culture is erotic love and romance, the concept of spiritual intimacy with God seems unsatisfying and — let’s be real — also kind of icky. It feels like a consolation prize, something you say to make yourself feel better about being alone.
On the other hand, in the church, marriage almost becomes an idol. Christina Cleveland writes all kinds of amazing things about singleness in this essay, (so many I want to quote!) but this stands out:
“After interacting with the church, many singles start to wonder: Is there something wrong with me? Is God working in my life? Am I as valuable (to God, to the church) as married people? Does God love me as much as he loves married people? Does God have good things in store for me as a single person?”
There’s no such thing as a perfect Christian, and there’s no such thing as perfect Christianity.
They don’t exist. One of the biggest lies Satan can tell you is that perfect spirituality can be achieved — it can’t.
There’s no perfect denomination.
There’s no perfect church.
There’s no perfect congregation size.
There’s no perfect style of worship.
There’s no perfect theology.
There’s no perfect children’s ministry curriculum.
There’s no perfect youth ministry philosophy.
There’s no perfect sermon formula.
There’s no perfect service sequence.
There’s no perfect leadership structure.
There’s no perfect interpretation of the Bible.
There’s no perfect strategy for evangelism.
Unfortunately, the idea of attaining perfect faith is perpetuated throughout Christendom. If you only attend this church more, pray more, tithe more, forgive more, sacrifice more, and ultimately do this or that just a little bit more — then you will attain blissful happiness, perfect harmony, divine communion with God, and a happily ever after eternity.
A firm decision to do or not to do something — see: intention, resolve, plan, commitment, pledge.
The quality of being determined or resolute — see: determination, purpose, steadfastness, perseverance,tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, dedication, commitment, stubbornness, boldness, spiritedness, bravery, courage, pluck, grit.
The action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter — see: solution to, settlement of, conclusion to, “the peaceful resolution of all disputes.”
In a world of seemingly endless conflicts, I sure like the sound of that. We need more of all of these qualities just now. All three meanings of resolution are wonderfully attractive to me — and timely for this brand new year. So here are my 10 resolutions for this 2015:
Have you ever been enamored by a child’s sense of wonder? Their incredulous awe in myths like the tooth fairy and Santa, their wide-eyed anticipation of unwrapping a present?
We are most inspired by the unknown.
A magic trick — how did they do it?!
A movie with surprising plot twists.
A news scandal shrouded with mystery.
We are drawn to the unknown because it tickles the innate sense of curiosity within us to discover and explore. Mystery invites participation, not for the sake of removing what is unknown, but to ignite a passion for learning beyond what is certain and be changed through the process.
Why is it then, we insist on equating our Christian faith to certainty? We sing about a Blessed Assurance and hold intensive meetings to discuss the essentials of faith. We share testimonies of God stories to shelve any doubts of God’s existence. We preach the same sermons, pray the same prayers, tell the same stories, week after week to convince ourselves it all is still true.
Is this what our Christianity has been reduced to, more of the same? I am sorry, but I simply cannot muster up anymore enthusiasm for such a formulaic faith; it’s like taking elementary classes all over again. I already know that two plus two equals four.
I am longing for the gift of uncertainty, a type of profound mystery that welcomes questions, a faith that requires a leap of faith to sustain.
Since June 18, 2004, the first day U.S. drones killed people in what has been called the U.S. “global war on terror,” people of faith have questioned whether the use of lethal drones is justifiable.
Since then, the CIA has conducted an estimated 400 or more drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Drone strikes are continuing in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, including women and children.
These “targeted” killings are conducted remotely in countries against which we have not declared war. Lethal drone strikes occur without warning, target for death specific individuals who are secretly selected, and are operated remotely by individuals thousands of miles away.
The U.S. religious community questions the morality of such drone warfare.
Many people of faith who are not pacifists adhere to the “Just War” tradition as enshrined in international law, which assumes that war is always an evil, but that sometimes there is a greater evil that requires military force.
People of faith can play an important role in helping each child of God realize his/her potential. Join us in standing up for education by signing the #UpForSchool petition, an urgent appeal to get every child into school—no matter who they are or where they are born.
When we invest in schooling for all children, lives are transformed for generations to come. For example, closing the education gap for girls reduces child marriage rates, leads to more income later in life, and lowers the rate of HIV/AIDs. Access to equal education is not only essential to building stronger economies and a healthy society, but it honors the God-given dignity of children.
My mom would agree: education is empowerment. It provides freedom and a better future—and no child in the world should be denied it.
Let us all pray that every child can go to school.
And let’s join other faith communities to make sure it happens—sign the petition now.
While driving to work the other day, I wound up stopped behind this car with a sign taped to the back window that said: “STUDENT DRIVER / PLEASE BE PATIENT / THANK YOU.”
It made me smile.
I remember being a 16-year-old behind the wheel of our family’s red station wagon, learning to drive with one of those handmade signs taped to the back window. I remember my dad sitting in the passenger seat and being very, very quiet the first time I merged onto an interstate with the semis whizzing past.
Maybe that’s why when I see a car with a student driver, I don’t get upset if they take forever to decide it’s finally safe to make that left-hand turn. Or if they’re entering the highway at 35 mph and I have to slow down and accommodate them.
Been there, remember that.