Saturday, April 23, 2011

Doubts and Community

Today was a good day of realizing that church is people, people one cares about and people who care about you. It is not that everyone agrees on everything, but there is a caring for one another, and we all care about worshiping our Lord. Ministry may eventually carry me elsewhere, but my heart is in the community.

Dr. Peter Davids

An adjunct professor of Tyndale, who is a very well known New Testament exegete, posted this comment above on his Facebook page.  I can only say, “Amen! And Amen!”

We have another friend, who was active in our church, who recently wrote to me that he needed to take some time away from “organized religion”.  He needed some time away to figure some things out and get in touch with God.

I have to say that I understand to a point what he means.  I think he means that we all at times are aggravated with someone or others in the church and wish we could just disappear or leave.  Sometimes people do leave a church for this reason.  I have been tempted to leave various churches various times in my life for this reason.  Usually I never left a church until I left the city I was in.  

I identify with Peter Davids’ comment above.  Leaving church would be like leaving my family.  I may not like them all at times, but I always love them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  I have at times withdrawn from some ministry in the church, e.g. church leadership, if I disagreed or felt my involvement was hindering the advancement of the church, i.e. if I disagreed with some policy or program being pursued and it was pointless to remain as a complainer or “brake” when the majority agreed.

My other friend may have also meant that he was experiencing doubts.  Often people seem to feel that they need to leave church when they have doubts.  Sometimes this is motivated from the modernist idea that we must as individuals solve all questions and answer all doubts by ourselves without relying on someone else.  

Personally I think this is madness.  We are not lone individuals.  We are born into families.  We generally live in families and God’s church is a family.  Scripture is full of metaphors of the Body of Christ as a family.  Frequent reference is made to fellow Christians being brothers and sisters and even fathers and mothers.  Paul tells Timothy to address men his age as brothers.  He tells him to address older men and women as fathers and mothers.  He tells him to treat younger women as sisters. (1 Timothy 5:1,2)

When you are ill you are glad for family who care for you.  When you feel sick or are incapacitated you are glad that someone else can take care of things, e.g. go to the drugstore and get your prescription, keep things clean and washed up, etc.

When a person has doubts or questions withdrawing into the “furnace” as Rene Descartes did is not wise. (Descartes' furnace ) Descartes decided he would withdraw into this “side room” which was a part of the hearth.  One could enter and be warm without being bothered.  He went into the room intent on figuring out just what he could believe in.  He employed his famous strategy of methodological doubt. Despite what Modernists have taught we cannot resolve doubts “boldly and bravely” on our own.  The famous “I doubt, therefore I think. I think, therefore I am.” is fraught with both philosophical and personal problems.

The church may not be perfect, but it is where God instructs us to seek help and counsel.  The Modernist demand that we create ourselves from our own resources is just false.  We were given to be by a loving God into a family, a human family, with whatever flaws and faults it had.  As new believers we are also given into a family, the family of God, the church of Christ.

Similarly the existentialist’s call for individuals to make meaning in a meaningless world is also flawed.  No one exists alone.  Descartes would have starved if he had remained alone in the furnace.  Despite existentialist demands for us to make meaning, to find value in the face of the nonsensical nature of life, life does in fact have meaning.  When a tragedy occurs we don’t say, “Oh, too bad for the Japanese.  A tsunami hit them.” We feel compelled (as we should) to do something to help.  This is our natural human reaction.  If the existentialists were correct we should, rather than do altruistic things, do our utmost to get ahead ourselves.

When I accepted Christ it was within a church community, St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church in West View, PA.  It’s true that I was asking lots of questions, but who answered them?  Perhaps Camus with his novel, the Plague, sparked some of the questions, e.g. about the meaning(lessness) of life, but it was people in the church who answered my questions or at least listened to my endless jeremiads as I tried to solve these questions.

The first person to listen was (and often still is) my mother.  She was both obviously my mother (human family), but also a sister in Christ.  My mother has read very widely and has always been a very wise person, as well as gentle and patient.

Another person to listen to my endless expositions was Dave Hrach.  Dave was our Sunday School teacher and one of our Luther League (youth group) leaders.  He was obviously a member of our church and a brother in Christ.

If you have not heard my testimony before, basically reading the Plague by Albert Camus, the French existentialist, caused me to question God’s existence and the meaning of life.  I was seventeen at the time.

I had been raised in the church, Evangelical Lutheran churches: St. Paul in Pittsburgh, PA and St. Luke, which I mentioned earlier. I had been baptized as a child, went to Sunday School and church all my life, had been catechized (taught church doctrine) and confirmed (officially declared my faith in Christ in church before the Bishop).  But somehow through all that process I had not met Christ personally.  Still, all of this good teaching (good deposit) formed a backdrop to my thought.

As I wrestled with Camus I could not follow his logic at all.  If God did not exist and I was the product of evolution, why would I risk my life doing altruistic things? In the novel that meant staying and fighting the plague for a French doctor, who could have left the scene of the outbreak.  I could not understand that doctor’s choice.  It seemed nonsensical to me.  Evolution teaches the survival of the fittest.  It says that if a species or individual has advantages over other species or even members of its own species it should and will use those advantages to stay alive.  It made no sense to me to remain and risk death.

If there were a God, and God would either reward you if you did help people in need or punish you or didn’t, there was a reason to help people in need.  If those people were created in God’s image and as a result valuable to him and in and of themselves there was a reason to fight the plague or do any other sort of altruistic deed in which one would risk his own life.  If there were a God, and saving anyone’s life other than your own had some eternal value, then there was a reason to fight against the plague or any other disease or disaster in which you would risk your own life.

However, if there is no God and no ultimate meaning to the universe and helping others only endangered oneself, then altruistic acts were just so much foolishness.  From my perspective today I would say if such were the case, then Friedrich Nietzsche was correct and the Superman should take care of himself and reign.

Thankfully there were people who patiently listened to me as I spun out this reasoning.  I’m not sure they would have reasoned the same way, but they listened and affirmed the correct conclusions.  I will never forget sitting in Dave Hrach’s car as he listened to me as I spent I’m sure it was at least an hour explaining all this.  He didn’t lead me in a prayer of repentance, but he said simply, “I hope you decide God exists.”  He left it to the Holy Spirit to draw me (as He was and did).  After a Bible study that night in the church sanctuary as we were praying as a group of teenagers, I gave my life to Christ.  Perhaps I only actualized what I had been taught for many years, but I “owned the Covenant”.  With a bit of a nod to the Modernists I “reasoned it out for myself” and I found the Truth.  But to be fair with a nod to Soren Kierkegaard, I met the Truth and the Truth was a Person, the Risen Jesus Christ.

I am no modern Apostle Paul.  Thankfully I have never persecuted the church (at least not intentionally!  ;-)  ). Yet that day was my “Damascus Road” experience.  It has focused and directed my life ever since.  And I don’t regret it at all.

So to return to the opening theme… I did wrestle through my doubts, but I didn’t wrestle alone.  That would have been foolish and perhaps even suicidal.  The devil desires to separate us from those whom God has given to us to help us resolve our questions and doubts.

We as the church are a family; a family of fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. I cannot list here due to space everyone who played a role of “father” or “mother” or “brother” or “sister”: there too many.

However, the point is clear (at least to me). You cannot and should not attempt to resolve your doubts by yourself apart from the church community, the family of God.  It is far from a perfect institution and the members are far from perfect, but family never is.  Still it’s family, the community we are born into.
With a nod to my doctoral mentor, Dr. William Desmond, “we are given to be with a promise”.  God has created us and placed us in families, human and ecclesiastical.  We find comfort and encouragement from God’s Word in the company of others (whether virtual or actual; however, virtual friends can’t give you a hug).

We not only find comfort and encouragement in God’s family, but we are also given TO God’s family.  We, as those born of God, come with a set of gifts and talents (spiritual and natural), which we are to use for the advancement and strengthening of the family of God.  

It is often said that there are no atheists in a foxhole.  When we are under attack physically and we have to fight there is no time to doubt.  We need help and we need it fast.  A similar point might be made about those who have doubts.  Often we are tempted to withdraw and say something like “I need to figure things out for myself”.  This, I believe, is a ploy of the devil. Separated from the warmth and spiritual food of the church we grow weaker and weaker trying to do something God never intended: figuring it out for ourselves.  

Those who are busy in the family of God find that church activities become a means to quell those doubts and help them grow spiritually. We may need to move “sideways”, e.g. out of leadership and into another ministry, e.g. music or setting up chairs.  But our spirits will thrive.  We were never meant to be isolated individual believers.  We were “given to be with a promise” as a part of a family.

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