A Word for Cowards

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.

Not Feeling Faith

ashestoashesSome of us have, for the moment at least, sufficiently made our point. We can not abide a robotic faith where difficult questions or deep anxieties are met with silence, rebuke or prayer-circle interventions. We have been worn to the existential bone with the hypocrisy we believe others demand of us when we are expected to apply our happy face and chirp a few cliches, often set to peppy tunes. We will not play the game. We will be (as we repeatedly remind ourselves and others) authentic.

The difficulty is that, in our move toward being real (whatever that means), we’ve often merely traded one false self for another false self. In our previous world, we felt there was no space for our humanness, our individuality, our emotions and inner life. To whatever degree this was the reality hoisted upon us, we are right to resist. We are whole beings, and our whole self matters. In the new world where we’ve shed these shackles, however, we are often ruled by what we feel, by whether our prayers feel vibrant or our worship feels truthful. We sit immobilized when we hear the Psalmist’s invitation to “praise the Lord all [our] life.” Praise is not an emotion; it is a declaration.

There are many days when I don’t feel the electricity of love for Miska (or she for me), but I announce my love to her, live my love toward her, nonetheless. And I’m not being inauthentic. Quite the opposite, I’m demonstrating that my love runs far deeper than my whims or confusions. I have promised fidelity. This is the ground of truth. When I don’t feel love’s energy, I should pay attention in order to keep a check on the state of my heart toward her, but this poverty doesn’t define what is true. Some days, my feelings are simply going to have to figure out how to keep up.

Our feelings, all the complexities of our story and our interior selves, are affirmed in the Psalms, honored in the prayers of the prophets and apostles, and blessed in the Incarnation where Divinity became fully human. However, our feelings are not God. Only God is God. As Barth said, “Let us set aside our investigation of God. God searches us. Our mind is never right.” To give no heed to what we feel or think or the many ways we struggle and plod along is to dishonor the God who created us. However, to give ultimate authority to these realities is to bow at the feet of another god.

Feelings are important in judging the condition of our heart or how we are engaging God and others. However, they don’t always tell us the truth about ourselves, God or others. Attentiveness to our feelings is essential to tell us where our heart is, but they are not always trustworthy to tell us where God is. Only God can do that.

This is why we pray with the Church. This is why we surrender to the stories of our God’s actions across history and geography. This is why we break bread with friends and laugh and dance under the moon and become peacemakers and feast with the poor. This is why we hope for good and commit ourselves to joy and why we have plenty of space for our tears. We do all this because God has come to us in Jesus Christ, and Jesus has taught us that this life is the life God has for us. Whether we feel it or not.

Firm, Rickety Faith

I asked Miska to marry me (the first time) on a snow swept mountaintop, under the stars. I think she saw the proposal coming, but the mind and the heart do their own thing in moments like this, and Miska’s instinctive response was to ask, repeatedly: Are you sure? Are you sure? She clutched the ring and echoed the question: are you sure? Seven times, if I remember correctly.

She couldn’t have known, as I didn’t even know myself, but those three words sliced into a hidden, wounded place. Those three words put language to one of my deepest fears: that I might be wrong, that I might be foolish, that I’ll miss some of the facts or hold a wrong belief or opinion and will, in the end, be uncovered as a fool.

The quick story is that she said yes, but her question unnerved me. I freaked out. Three days later, she gave me back the ring. A month after that, I got my crap together, and Miska was kind enough to roll the dice on me one more time. However, the themes in that story have grown to be annoyingly familiar.

I have friends who seem to have never known a doubt, never second-guessed a conviction or belief. I have no idea what that would be like.

For folks like me, however, it’s a mistake to think that because our mind wavers and absolute certainty remains eternally illusive, this means we must forever waffle, never stand firm. We may have to endure a perpetual, nagging “what if?” playing in the background, but this only means our beliefs require more courage. The ground on which we stand may be harder won and our ground will most likely be a smaller territory than others triumphantly claim – and surely, we’ll move our flag from time to time (a virtue, if you ask me). But if we’ll learn to trust the things we know even if we don’t know we know them (we might need to chew on that for a moment) and if we’ll allow ourselves to live more playfully and more whimsical, we will find our steady ground. And we’ll discover than being foolish ain’t all that bad.

As St. O’Conner said in the Second Gospel of Wise Blood: “Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”

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As a gesture to my Fénelon book being Kindle-available (and on sale for $2.99 for a few more days), I leave you with a pertinent line from one of the letters in Let God: “True faith never delivers the sort of human certainty we constantly look for. True faith won’t let us grab hold to safety or latch on to dry formulas…God is God, you know.”

Diary of a Plain Pastor: Doubt

Faith is not a thing which one ‘loses,’ we merely cease to shape our lives by it. That is why old-fashioned confessors are not far wrong in showing a certain amount of skepticism when dealing with ‘intellectual crises,’ doubtless far more rare than people imagine.

{Diary of a Country Priest}

Wrangling with doubt and questions comes easy for me, too easy perhaps. One of the chapters in my first book opened with this line: “A pastor really ought to believe in God. It works better that way.” (it’s still true, by the way.) And this was no quick two-week rabbit trail for me. My quandary with doubt popped up again in Holy Curiosity. Doubt has been a companion, weaving it’s way in and out of my story for the past 15 years or so. For some, faith comes easy. For others, faith comes through blood, sweat and fears.

Doubt’s a tricky thing, though. The old cliche says that faith’s a crutch; well, doubt’s a crutch too. When doubt keeps me honest, keeps me human, it can be a friend. But when doubt isolates me or encourages my cynical side, whenever doubt diminishes the life I could be busy living, doubt has become my enemy (or “my foe,” as six-year-old Seth called a kindergarten pal who grew mean on the playground).

I cling to doubt because it provides an allure of protection. Left free to roam and pillage, doubt runs right past being honest and on to constructing barricades. Nothing required of me. Nothing to disappoint me. No one to criticize me – because I’ve committed to nothing. We cannibalize ourselves, rushing to dismantle our beliefs before anybody else tries.

Doubt as one voice keeping us honest is a good thing. Doubt as the voice telling us who we are is a horrible thing. Believing in the gospel is a posture of faith. And being a pastor is a life of living toward – and inviting others toward – faith.

If my life is defined by doubt, then I’m not getting on with actually being who I am in this world. I’m not living toward anything. Rather than giving myself to my church and my family and my craft and my friends, I’m simply detracting, deconstructing. I’m withering away. That’s no way to live.

In the wise words of the Avett Brothers, “Decide what to be. And go be it.”

All You Need to Know

My old nemesis doubt has snarled at me yet again in recent days. I’m not surprised; we’re naturally floundering a bit as we make our way in this new place, feeling the geographic disconnection from the deep friendships that have sustained us over the past years. There’s more reasons, I know (tiredness, the necessary process of wrestling with new questions and contexts, etc. etc.). The bottom line, though, is that I have just felt that numbing, vague hollowing of my soul.

My first response in seasons of doubt is to rev the intellectual engines. Find an answer. Scratch around for more proofs. Connect with a philosophical voice that calms my anxious heart. There’s a place for bending the mind, absolutely. Ignorance is not our friend. However, I’ve peddled around those circles enough to know that they just keep going round and round and round. For me, hope is not found in a rational repose but in an inflamed heart. Eleven years ago, when I foolishly freaked out about whether or not I should marry Miska, my doubt and fear was not, at its core, a matter of proofs and logic. It was a matter of desire. What did I want? What did my heart beat for? It’s the same here. As a friend recently told me, “All you need to know is what you love.”

My doubts (in this season at least) aren’t signals that I need to better wrestle with my questions. Rather, my doubts make their way from a heart that has not surrendered to love. I find hope in Mother Theresa’s words (who said if she would ever be declared a saint, it would have to be as a “saint of darkness”): “My key to heaven is that I loved Jesus in the night.”

In the night, I loved. Not just in the day. Not just amid the answer. But I loved Jesus, in the night. That is my hope, my prayer.

Undone

Yesterday, I was undone. It was Sunday. Resurrection Day. But Resurrection was a long way away. My heart was dark and shifty and felt like it was drowning, being held under swirling, grimy water by an unrelenting, evil hand.

But we sat among friends. I heard the Gospel reading from the lectionary for the day. Miska led us in a contemplative prayer, helping us to “image” our prayer rather than “word” our prayer. We sang this refrain: “Oh, how he loves us.” Tears came as I realized I don’t really believe that line. I believe it factually. I believe it theologically. I would pick that answer on a test. But I don’t believe it, not in my gut, not in the places that matter most. But the words kept coming, from the screen, from the voices all around me. And I cried.

And then we passed the peace. In our church, we hug or shake hands (usually hug) and say something like “Peace to you” or “Peace of Jesus to you.” One and then two and three and four and five people came to me – Miska first. Only Miska knew where my heart was, but each physically offered Jesus to me…in a touch…with their voice. And the tears came again.

Next, I was supposed to teach. From John 11. The story of Lazarus’ death and Mary and Martha’s deep agony and disillusionment because Jesus refused to come when they had pleaded with him to do so. This is a strange story of bewilderment and disappointment and a God who doesn’t do what we expect. A God who lets Lazarus die. Who allows Mary to weep. A God who grows angry and then weeps himself. And a God who, when all is said and done, truly was (as he said) “the resurrection and the life.”

I was a mess. My story is no story of spiritual victory. Just spiritual brokenness. The Gospel (through friends and text and music and touch and sacrament) broke through, spoke to me, breathed hope into me. But I was still undone, still wounded, still wondering. My choice was whether or not I would give from that place. Whether I would weep and tell the truth. Or whether I would lie.

Thankfully, God didn’t really give me a choice. I stood, and the tears came. It was pretty humbling, but if church truly is community…If God truly is center stage…Then what we bring to the moment should really just be ourselves, hoping for the Gospel, desperate for Jesus. God wasn’t going to let me wiggle free yesterday. When you’re standing in front of your church blubbering, it’s pretty hard to hide or pretend or tell a cutesy story and move on. Left to myself, I might have chosen a safer, more dishonest path. But God wasn’t going to have it.

Resurrection only comes in ways God chooses. For Lazarus. For us.

I don’t entirely like these words that follow. But I’m beginning to believe them. I’m beginning to hope God will give me the courage to let loose of myself (my reputation, my leadership, my image) and embrace them:

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. Henri Nouwen

Jesus’ peace to you,
Winn