November 24, 2017

A shepherd’s ambiguous apologetic

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Berchem

Annunciation to the Shepherds, Berchem

I confess. I have no apologetic.

There is no defending God. There is no proving his way is right. To do so would require that I understand God, that I can substantiate the claims of truth my faith calls me to hold.

I can explain what I believe well enough. I can demonstrate to a certain degree that my faith is reasonable and not the delusions of a crackpot. But I can’t prove anything. I can’t argue an airtight case. I can’t campaign for Jesus on a platform of certainty.

You see, all the “evidence” is ambiguous. It is capable of being interpreted in a variety of ways. What convinces one person to believe may lead another to have serious doubts.

Even the bedrock occurrence in the story of our faith — the resurrection of Jesus — was not what you would call a public event. It was unexpectedly discovered by a few common people in the hazy dawn of Easter morning. All of Jesus’ appearances were reserved for people who became his witnesses. It is their word we have to trust. I happen to be convinced that they were trustworthy and that they had no reason to invent a story so fantastic, but I can see why people might have doubts.

I suppose this is why some Christians feel the need to posit an inerrant Bible, a fully trustworthy revelation directly from the mouth of God that demonstrates in incontrovertible terms that it is TRUTH™. Thus, all we have to do is open up the book and — there it is! — a sure and certain foundation for our beliefs. However comfortable that might make believers feel, in reality it just creates another proposition Christians must defend. Proving the divine perfection of the Bible requires herculean efforts and, as centuries of dispute over Scripture’s nature, meaning, and interpretation show, the evidence here is muddy too.

So, I don’t really have an apologetic. At best, it’s ambiguous.

The other day I was thinking about the shepherds in Luke’s Christmas story. Surely they had a sense of certainty. Surely what they experienced was so unambiguous, so transformative, that they lived the rest of their lives in the assurance of faith. Surely God had proven himself to them. They beheld the angel hosts! They heard the gospel announced directly from heaven! They saw the baby Jesus in the flesh!

However, sometimes I wonder what happened next. The Gospel tells us they went back to work later that night. We never hear from them again. What was it like for the shepherds a week later? a month? ten or twenty years? I don’t know if they were around when Jesus went throughout Judea proclaiming the Kingdom. I’d like to think their faith was confirmed and strengthened over the years, perhaps by personal encounters with Jesus in his ministry.

On the other hand, it is possible they didn’t hear much about Jesus again, perhaps for the rest of their lives. If so, what would that long silence have communicated to them? Based on the angel’s message they would have expected, somewhere along the line, a Son of David to ascend the throne in Jerusalem, bringing lasting peace and relief from their enemies. An unambiguous fulfillment of God’s promise. But even if they did become part of the crowd and followed Jesus around Judea and Galilee, they never saw that happen, did they? How might they have reconciled that grand birth announcement with reality on the ground years later — an itinerant rabbi with nowhere to lay his head? And then, the cross? Some king. Some throne.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationAll this is pure speculation, of course, but I think it makes a point: In my opinion, Christians (and I include myself) have been far too cocksure in talking about Jesus and our faith. As though it’s about having a sense of certainty that carries us blissfully through life. As though what we believe and the reasons we believe are so clear, so transparent, so unambiguous that we just can’t imagine others being unable to see it.

I had a spiritual awakening in high school, and it was prompted by relationships I developed with a group of Christian young people in school and church. What I liked about them was that they were real. I saw their imperfections and could blow holes through their arguments. But I couldn’t get past their joy, their belief that life was worth living in spite of problems and doubts. There was something that kept them moving forward to embrace the goodness of life and faith and hope and love. They were pitiful at trying to explain it, but it was there. Ultimately, I found I couldn’t resist the song their lives sang to me.

So this is what I keep coming back to. Sometime long ago, on a dark night I heard angels sing. I saw the face of the Savior. And it was real.

My experience wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the show the shepherds witnessed. However, it just as effectively got my attention and caused me to change direction in ways that I suppose were as crazy as leaving your job in the middle of the night to go see a stranger’s newborn baby based on a heavenly vision.

But then, like the shepherds, I had to return to life, plain old life, everyday life.

Through the years I’ve had reason to doubt over and over again whether that experience was real. I have wondered whether the promises I received were genuine, or whether it might not all have been some adolescent fantasy born of hormones, naiveté, and group dynamics. It can get awfully ambiguous at times.

Whether or not the shepherds ever saw Jesus again, I can testify that since my epiphany, every once and awhile along the way I have encountered him. Thing is, he’s never what I expect. He constantly confuses me and makes me scratch my head. The more I try to define what he’s all about or what he’s doing in my life, the more mixed up I become. And when I go to speak, I fumble around for words to explain him, to express what he means to me, to put my finger on the gifts with which he has so graciously filled my life.

He’s real, and that’s about the best I can do.

And there you have it. My ambiguous apologetic.

Maybe you were hoping you’d read something today that would nail it all down for you, relieve your doubts, answer your questions, make it all certain.

Sorry. Just a shepherd here.

Most nights are pretty quiet.

Comments

  1. I thought you might enjoy this song: http://youtu.be/teSuDu84kMc

  2. Joseph (the original) says:

    amen…

  3. Christiane says:

    ” . . . What can I give Him, poor as I am?
    If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb . . . ”
    (Christina Rossetti)

    ““He called the wise men by a star, the fishermen by their art of fishing. ”
    (St John Chrysostom)

    But for shepherds, also He called . . . by way of the angels He sent to them on that holy night.
    So when ‘just a shepherd here’ can say
    ” Sometime long ago, on a dark night I heard angels sing. I saw the face of the Savior. And it was real”,
    it is not at all outside the bounds of what we have come to expect from Our God.

  4. Not a quiet night for me tonight CM. Yesterday was another round of chemotherapy and tonight, another night of loud ringing in my head and pain in my stomach. I spend a lot of those kind of nights reflecting back on so much of my own life in the way you speak of it here. I’ve spent so much of my life in hospital chaplaincy trying at times to defend God to families who ask all the usual questions as their loved ones suffer or die.But I stopped being God’s public defender years ago, in those situations as I know you have. But now, for me, I’m learning a new dimension of that as my mind goes crazy sometimes in the middle of the night. I find myself asking some of the questions of myself that I’ve heard the families in the hospital ask me. It gets totally nuts, it gets unbearable at times. The words of scripture help, they help so much. But it all comes down to what you said. I don’t even have an apologetic anymore to completely convince myself, yet I know the somewhere down inside of me, at a deeper level than the pain, that it is real, that God is there, that He is here. I’m reading your post, sitting in our dark living room. But the christmas tree is on, over there in the corner. And I’m thinking about, trying to think about the real meaning of Christ’s birth. I decided to see what you had to say for the day. Thanks for this. There’s a lot of ambiguity taking place in the living room tonight.

    • ronh,

      Wow, your post strikes such a chord with me. My wife and I are watching her mom endure a battle with two types of cancer at 86 years old. Painful and frustrating for us; I can only imagine what she’s going through and I have no conception of the depths of the journey in which you find yourself. All I can offer are some words that I must confess weren’t penned by me but written much more eloquently by James Lileks. Coincidentally, I sent Chaplain Mike these same words as they resonated with me and reminded me of some of his writings. But they seem apt here as well.

      Lileks blogged of his father-in-law’s declining health and the helplessness he felt. He began his article this way, “The closer you are, the less you have to say…….silence and presence suffices.” He closed with this wisdom, “Words, in the end, don’t matter. Words are happy to leave the stage, unequal to the role. The best we have are Hope and Sorrow, the common round vowel like a peephole into rooms whose dimensions you can’t possibly measure.”

      We’ve never met, but through IM I can offer my presence and silence. Also, my prayers. I wish I could offer more.

      • Thanks Chris, your silence and presence are very meaningful. Whether I end up surviving this battle or not, I am learning from looking through the “peephole” into a room that I truly cannot measure.

    • Thanks for gifting us with these thoughts. Words don’t really stretch well, to cover these more important corners of experience and struggle. Yours, however, certainly cover a lot of ground. Thank you.

  5. Clay Crouch says:

    This might just be your best post, ever. Thank you for being unambiguously unapologetic.

  6. You’ve pretty much described exactly where I am in my wilderness sojourn, Chap. Thank you for putting everything so clearly and eloquently.

  7. Wonderful. Perhaps if we believers were more willing to be transparent in regard to our uncertainties, more people would be willing to listen to us. At least for me, it’s those who have experienced “dark nights of the soul”, aren’t afraid to admit that they’ve endured moral struggle, and have experienced downward mobility from a personal perspective whose voices resonate with me….Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Brother Lawrence, Lady Julian of Norwich, St. Augustine, etc…

  8. CM….brilliantly simple and simply brilliant, at least to the ears of this not-very-smart sheep reading here!

    I am with you in spirit…I can trot out the Summa Theologica and Natural Law and improbability that so many people, in the 1st century and the 21st century, would suffer and die for a mass hoax or hallucination. Yet…..that is cold comfort when the brown stuff hits the rapidly rotating blades in our lives.

    I can only add that I love and trust God, in a similar manner to how I love and trust my husband (NOT the same relationship, but bear with me…) I can point to all sorts of qualities of faithfulness, kindness, selflessness, and caring that both have demonstrated to me, but that does not explain or prove “LOVE” in either case. Some things cannot be quantified or boxed, and can only be sort-of-explained by what they are not or what they seem like…..because the essence and reality defies explanations. So, I love back and I trust and that is the best I can tell anyone of why I am a follower of Christ!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Or when the biopsy comes back Stage IV and the oncologist starts talking about “pain management” and “hospice” and “remaining quality of life”.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    Excellent! I remember in college when I was introduced to Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God. I was struck at how unpersuasive they were. They came across as a really smart guy’s attempt to prove the unprovable, taking himself down some pretty dumb paths. His modern successors strike me similarly, except for their not being nearly as smart as Thomas was. This might be my Lutheran upbringing, but my thought at the time was the Jesus never said “your conclusion adduced from first principles proving the existence of God has made you whole.”

    • For all the effort sunk into learning the “classic” arguments for the existence of God (ontological, teleological, etc.), both in and out of seminary, I can only recall ONE time I ever had a contextual opportunity to use them. And I have no idea whether it worked. Most people just don’t think in deliberate philosophical categories – and we can either whine about that and decry it (the most popular choice in my old seminary circles) or accept it and move on.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Remember that Thomas Aquinas was said to have had a vision of God late in life, after which he remarked that all his theological writings were “a thing of straw”, i.e. he’d barely been able to scratch the surface.

      Also, re “proofs of the existence of God” apologetics, I’m reminded both of a sales pitch and a line from Lewis’s The Great Divorce: “Proofs of God’s Existence! As if God had nothing to do except Exist!”

      • That’s the most charitable explanation I’ve heard for Aquinas’ end-of-the-road disillusionment with theology. Another one I’ve heard is that he saw the deconstruction process on his theological system begin, and saw that he couldn’t prevent it, and got disillusioned with abstract theology. The “Vision from God” part came later as a positive spin on his decision…

        • That’s because Aquinas too ROMISH for you.

          “POPERY POPERY ROMISH SCENTED POPERY!!!” –the substance of every criticism of anything Roman Catholic, comrade

      • “‘Also, re ‘proofs of the existence of God’ apologetics, I’m reminded both of a sales pitch and a line from Lewis’s The Great Divorce: “Proofs of God’s Existence! As if God had nothing to do except Exist.””

        This is why proofs of God never posit anything better than ‘God as imagined by Greek philosophy, must of necessity exist.” Why that matters is always a bit unclear. Let the divine naval-gazer continue with gazing.

    • “Jesus never said “your conclusion adduced from first principles proving the existence of God has made you whole.”

      Richard, may I quote you on this? That is sweet.

    • Jesus never said “your conclusion adduced from first principles proving the existence of God has made you whole.”

      Richard, may I publicly quote you on this? Lovely.

    • “I remember in college when I was introduced to Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God…”

      Oh good, this happened to someone else. I was so excited to learn them (and a few of the other classics). Then I read them, and it was like “….Houston? Are you there? We have a problem.”

      I do have a lot of affection for the ontological argument, however. I used to try to teach it as a tutor for philosophy classes (it was on an exam), and students were always like, “Wait, is this some kind of trick?” To which I smiled like Cheshire Cat, and said, “I don’t know! Is it?” (I did convince a few people that the Ultimate Banana, to which no other Bananas can be compared, and also the Ultimate Cheesecake, must exist.)

      • Only by way of joking, of course, but everyone was much happier about taking exams afterward. At least until they were served the exam.

  10. pamela wood says:

    ‘Thing is, he’s never what I expect. He constantly confuses me and makes me scratch my head. The more I try to define what he’s all about or what he’s doing in my life, the more mixed up I become. And when I go to speak, I fumble around for words to explain him, to express what he means to me, to put my finger on the gifts with which he has so graciously filled my life.’

    Isn’t that the truth? I’m so glad that He is too huge to be contained in this small pea-brain of mine…the bible even says He is, but I keep trying to explain Him and His ways, to understand Him. Is it just curiosity or is it something that He placed within us, to want to know Him more? But if I could contain HIM, He wouldn’t be GOD, would He – at least not the GOD I need when my world is collapsing all around me. And yet, I know – I know He’s real, I know He is Who He says He is, I know He’s my Father, my Source, my Savior, my Guide, and I so much want others to know the joy I find in Him, just like the shepherds: ‘the shepherds told everyone what had happened’ (Luke 2:17a)…how can you keep a thing like that inside? How can I keep the mercy/forgiveness/love He shows me quiet…I can’t, so I will continue ‘ glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.’ (Luke 2: 20b) with the shepherds on my way back to my normal, mundane, everyday life.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      If you remember your Gospels, Christ had this way of doing and saying the unexpected. Really liked to throw curveballs into certainty of What God Is Like.

  11. Scott Fisher says:

    Great post and resonates with me and my own spiritual journey.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I suppose this is why some Christians feel the need to posit an inerrant Bible, a fully trustworthy revelation directly from the mouth of God that demonstrates in incontrovertible terms that it is TRUTH™. Thus, all we have to do is open up the book and — there it is! — a sure and certain foundation for our beliefs.

    Just like ISLAM.

    (One blog by an EO priest — not Orthocuban — described the Protestant Reformation and Sola Scriptura as “Islamizing Christianity”.)

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Yabbut… Sola Scriptura is only one fifth of the package. The rest are Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. That Sola Scriptura gets so much play today is both interesting and problematic, but it says something about today, not about the Reformation.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    My experience wasn’t nearly as spectacular as the show the shepherds witnessed.

    It usually isn’t.
    No matter what the Celebrity Evangelists or Holy Rollers say.

    • Them Holy Rollers for the most part are brothers and sisters doing the best they know how with what they have been given. Which is pretty much all I can say for myself. Probably true as well of most who hang out here.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Both Evangelicals and Pentecostals go for Spectacular Experiences at the expense of all the rest of us who DON’T have Spectacular Experiences or Visions or Lives.

        • HUG, I’m a liberal Episcopalian, and I had an encounter with God 40 years ago, but I swear it wasn’t at your expense. I’m sorry it offended you. 🙂

          I don’t think these “born-again” experiences are about showing off; I have always felt they were reserved for the exceptionally thick-headed, like me. Most Christians don’t need them.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Then why do so many of the exceptionally thick-headed who’ve had this experience use that experience to claim bragging rights? Isn’t there supposed to be a disconnect between the Kingdom of God and one-upmanship? Or is this just another manifestation of thick-headedness?

          • Christiane says:

            is it ‘bragging rights’? or is a spiritual experience seen by most people as private to them ?

            at a particularly low time in my young life, I had a ‘spiritual’ experience outside of anything I had ever had before and it left me at peace and comforted,
            and when I remember it, I am profoundly thankful for whatever it was that happened to me there . . .

            we were in the mountains around Flagstaff at the time . . . I remember years later sharing this with a friend from that area and she told me that long ago, that area was a place of spiritual retreat for the Indians who regarded it as sacred land
            . . . hearing this, I got chills and all I could think of was maybe it is true about the ‘thin places’ of the Earth after all, and they’re not located all in Ireland

        • Having spent something like seven years in two churches that would be considered both Pentecostal and Evangelical, I can report from first hand experience that neither went for what most people would call “Spectacular Experiences”. Some of the neighboring churches may have, but if so I wasn’t aware of it and don’t see how it could have been at my expense or anyone else’s but their own if they did. I attended an Evangelical service a few months back and didn’t see anything like a Spectacular Experience, tho they did take up a collection. Of course you might regard Paul’s praying privately in tongues or a prophetic word given and received in church as a Spectacular Experience, but Paul didn’t as long as it was done “decently and in order”. Television might offer up examples closer to your description, but you aren’t required to watch or contribute if you do. Methinks your brush is a wee bit broad.

          • I’m glad to hear it, Charles. On the other hand, I know of one man who was at the point of suicide because he hadn’t had the experiences his church required as proof of true belief. I have also seen children’s manuals for how to talk in tongues, made necessary, again, because church members believed that extraordinary signs were essential for true faith.

          • Look for the code words “mountain top experiences”. Good example of Spectacular Experiences.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            This has been gone over on this blog and others. About “Acquire the Fire”, “Teen Mania”, the always-on-fire, always-having-a-mountain-top-experience 24/7/365 as THE goal to shoot for, the PROOF of Salvation, and counting coup on all those Lukewarms. You can only stay hyped on that mountaintop for so long before you collapse, and it gets harder to stay there as you get older and your energy fades.

      • Charles, I couldn’t agree more with all three of your statements.

        One of my best friends is a hard-core, The Bible is Literally True and The Rapture is Nearly Here, fundamentalist. She’s had a hard hard life, and is making her way through a hard old age just as well as she can, hanging on to her (to my mind rather loony) beliefs, and loving God and her fellow-humans just as Jesus would have her do.

        I love her a lot and if there’s a heaven she’ll definitely be there and I hope will speak for this often-wavering sinner.

        • The problem is all too often those two things are mutually exclusive, that list at the start followed by loving God and others. All too often enforcing the list IS seen as loving God and loving others…

          Does not Answers in Genesis exist out of love? Or Westboro Baptist?

          • “The problem is all too often those two things are mutually exclusive . . . .”

            Too often you are right about the mutually exclusive, but in my view the problem lies in putting subordinate beliefs higher in the list than the doing as summed up in the two commandments Jesus put at the top of the list of doing. The great majority of people here and in the church at large might put the Nicene Creed at the top of the list, a statement that Jesus might well scratch his head over and in which “love” is conspicuous by its absence. The main thrust of the Nicene Creed is to support and enforce Trinitarian doctrine to counter so called heresy. It also tends to counter the statement which Jesus and the Jewish people at large, including the religious authorities who eventually killed Jesus, considered primary. Our God is One.

            I’m thinking that Answers in Genesis and the Westboro Baptists probably fit in with my earlier statement about folks doing the best they know how with what they have been given. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t had a vast amount of room to grow and evolve spiritually. I’m thinking if there turns out to be some kind of Day of Judgement or Final Assessment of Our Time On Planet Earth, it will probably involve how well we took advantage of that vast amount of room to grow. Please don’t honk, I’m pedaling as fast as I can.

  14. I do read IM and hardly ever respond. However, I think these last two days are gems worthy to mine in the heart. Somewhere I read that the possibility of the shepherds keeping watch over sheep that were deemed worthy for the temple sacrifices. Not sure as to that thought. These last two days point out the mystery of God’s prevailing grace that draws one into a understanding of the power and truth of the Gospel’s saving redemption through the cross. So Thankful I am for the remembrances we can grow in faith and love to others. Growing in spiritual fruit.

  15. “Delusions of a Crockpot” – my new cooking channel on YouTube. Stay tuned.

  16. Amen. I studied apologetics for a while years ago, and while I found some of it informative and useful, I never saw it draw someone to Jesus. As with your experience, what did that was people’s lives, actions, words, deeds, thoughts, love, kindness, compassion and (perhaps most) flaws.

    And here’s the other thing: striving to have that attractiveness of faith won’t produce it. It’s a byproduct of something deeper that varies with each individual. You can’t manufacture it or mass produce it or gin it up. (Evangelicalism has tried to, I think, with much failure,but that’s a whole other post). There’s no substitute for the real deal. May we all experience more of that going into this Christmas season and beyond.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      There appear to be a LOT of things that you cannot get by aiming directly for them, but always come as a byproduct of something else.

      My type example is a secular one, “Building Self-Esteem”.

  17. Chaplain Mike, this is such a meaningful and wonderful meditation. Thank you so much for it. (May I add that the picture is wonderful too — I love the little dog empathizing with his master’s astounishment.)

    My “dark night” on which I heard angels sing and saw the face of the Savior, was actually a sunny afternoon in my little house, and I was in my 30s and was a pretty confirmed though reluctant atheist before then.

    But the meeting was just as real and definitive as yours. The sense of God has never fully disappeared since then.

    As for trying to do apologetics about God, no way. I can play “duelling Scriptures” all day long with anyone, but it’s only a game.

    I like, though I don’t fully understand, the way William Blake put it:

    God appears, and God is Light
    To those poor souls who dwell in night,
    But doth a human form display
    To those who dwell in realms of day.

    Just a sheep here.

    • “Duelling scriptures”. A very powerful, simple and effective image.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        To the tune of “Dueling Banjos”?
        (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDAd_H7AFk0 – starts out slow)

        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        “QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE! QUOTE!”
        (big guitar riff; abandon quoting and go for each others’ throats with teeth and fingernails…)

  18. THIS is the kind of article that has always attracted me to iMonk. The honesty Michael bore on this site will forever impact my walk of faith. Keep up this kind of work!

  19. Beautifully written, and encouraging. Sorry in advance for the long post – I wanted to include a Buechner quote.

    So much of this resonated with me – the start of a journey having nothing to do with theology or comparative religion or an “unmoved mover” and more about humility and a recognition of something tangible and good. Moving from an initial naivete to a healthy questioning to soul draining apologetics. Then wrestling with doubts that at times seem insurmountable, building up towers of certainty that inevitably come crashing down like the tower of babel. It’s a sobering reminder – like reading ronh’s post above.

    Made me go directly to my favorite all time Frederick Buechner piece – “Message in the Stars” – a meditation on how Buechner himself might write a story about God objectively proving himself. A few tidbits:

    “If God really exists, why in Heaven’s name does God not prove that he exists instead of leaving us here in our terrible uncertainty? Why does he not show his face so that at last a despairing world can have hope? At one time or another everyone asks such a question. Deep in our hearts, I suspect this is what all of us want, unbelievers no less than believers…… Suppose, for instance, that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way as we see it from down here flowing across the night sky and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual haphazard scattering of stars but, written out in letters light years tall, the sentence: I REALLY EXIST, or “GOD IS”….

    What I would be trying to suggest in my story would be that the initial impact of God’s supplying the world with this kind of objective proof of his existence would be extraordinary. Churches would have to overflow into football stadiums and open fields, wars would stop, crime would stop, a kind of uncanny hush would fall over the world. But as my story ended, I am afraid that in honesty I would have to suggest something else. Several years would go by and God’s proof of himself would still be blazing away every night for all to read. In order to convince people that the message was not just some million-to-one freak of nature, I would be tempted to have God keep rewriting it in different languages…..

    Then the way that I would have it end would be this. I would have a child look up at the sky one night, just a plain, garden-variety child with perhaps a wad of bubble gum in his cheek. And then I would have the child turn to his father, or maybe, with the crazy courage of childhood, I would have him turn to God himself, and the words that I would have him speak would be words to make the angels gasp. “So what if God exists?” he would say. What difference does that make?”

    We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want – scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all – would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-to-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.”

  20. I believe that the less the church feels it needs to give pat answers and have an explanation for everything, and the more it has honest stories of people’s real struggles, doubts and perseverance as they walk with Christ, the better witness we have.

    Yesterday a person I had led in a small group a few years ago contacted me to ask for definitive answers about miracles today vs in the Bible, and (if that weren’t enough!) to ask me to explain God’s will too. I know this woman; most likely she had heard some preacher’s definitive take on these subjects, had compared what he’d said to what she’d experienced herself, and figured somehow she was deficient or sinful or God didn’t love her, etc. because what she’d seen didn’t match up. So she wanted a cut-and-dry answer about what to believe.

    I don’t have pat answers, I struggle with those kinds of things myself, and I happen to think most of the great figures in Scripture did too. My response is going to be to ask her some questions, listen to her so I understand what’s behind her fears, and then start exploring with her why there are no definitive answers to those questions. That’s not what she wants to hear–she wants an answer–but it’s what will do her and me the most good.

    This is so much better than making some kind of pronouncement rooted in apologetics, a particular theological system, or any other attempt to make faith respond to a+b=c. I wonder if those kinds of things worked in the Enlightenment and don’t now, or if they ever worked at all. I suspect they never did.

  21. Very good post. Great comments.

    The beauty of books like “The Case for Christ” and “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” is you get to read about people’s experiences investigating Jesus in order to dispel him, and then discovering he’s real.

    The problem with books like that is thiinking that eveyone who reads them will (or should) be persuaded. As I commented on a post several days ago, trying to convince a non-believer that the resurrection really happened just ain’t gonna work, especially when those of us who believe sometimes wonder.

  22. David Cornwell says:

    When I was a child my mom told me stores about the Bible. They were wrapped up in the mystery of a God who loves us, came to this world as Jesus, and died there on a cross in order that I might have life with Him. On Easter morning this Jesus came back from the dead, walked this earth again, fellowshipped with His followers at table. Then He went to live with His Father until, one Day, He will come back again. This is where the stories pointed, and where Story would go.

    She also told me stories about how people’s lives have been changed by this Jesus. What they were like before they met Him, and what they became afterward. All this was had mystery about it. But it also had the ring of truth, because I saw this Jesus in the lives of those my mom and dad associated with at Church, and other places.

    Of course I grew up. And becoming wise, I started to ask questions and wonder about it all. However the stories I heard in Sunday School, when it was told in Word and Sacrament, and what I saw in the lives of others seemed right to me. It didn’t require proof, or picking apart, because it was another kind of truth. It was an overlapping, all enwraping kind of truth that held everything else in its grasp. It’s like the song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and here is where everything hangs.

    Theology, to me, is a way to talk about this. But first we must accept the fallibility of our attempts to explain. They are just talking points, and ways to discuss and learn, not a finality of truth. Our great confessions, articles of religion, and treatises on theology are, at best, just ways to help us understand the Story. At worst they are points of dissension, division, and the cause of schism in the Body of Christ. And they will never prove the Story.

  23. I love this with the entirety of my heart.

    Basking in the glory. No more words from me today.

  24. Mary LaVille says:

    Thanks Chaplain Mike, you nailed it.

  25. “I have wondered whether the promises I received were genuine, or whether it might not all have been some adolescent fantasy born of hormones, naiveté, and group dynamics. It can get awfully ambiguous at times.”

    This is why I so much continue to return to this site everyday. This resonates with every fiber of my being. There are so many times I wonder if it’s all really true; I am the man in Mark that cries out “I believe! Help my unbelief!” Yet I always return–like Peter asks Jesus, “Where else would I go? Only you have the words of eternal life.” I don’t know why I believe. It just has to be true.

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike. You, and Michael before you, minister to those of us who aren’t always certain about everything and assure us that it’s okay to have faith no bigger than a mustard seed. I seem to remember somebody else saying that.

  26. Well, Chaplain Mike, you obviously missed what happened to the shepherds. They went to Bethlehem to see “the baby Jesus,” knelt by the manger, prayed “The Sinner’s Prayer,” and went forth to live “godly” lives guided by “biblical” principles from the inerrant “Word of God,” and handing out copies of “The Four Spiritual Laws” to all whom they met. And, of course, they adhered to the “right” positions on all social issues. 🙂

  27. Hi Mike,
    I enjoyed reading your post… In questioning my beliefs at times I always come back to John 3:16-17, and know Jesus is real and His purpose has gone throughout the world even to today. I think my only concern is the relationships I held before left me denying the relationships that could have been and I know now to believe in the promises and stay in His Word. Ambiguity is a normal feeling as we go through different stages of life. Have to be careful not to let it grip you and cause your doubt’s to doubt Christ’s purpose. I often wonder what it would be like to live in those times when Jesus was on earth… But I am secure in knowing He is present in everything that goes on. I too am not perfect and apolize for my behaviors or lack of example… I appreciate your post in being real.