Tag Archives: Doubt

Grappling With "Never"

“And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke 1:20 (NIV)

“I don’t know what to with never,” Wendy confessed to me one afternoon.

There are some moments in this life journey that are etched indelibly in my brain’s memory bank, and this is one of them. When the two of us were married Wendy inherited two teenaged daughters. Still, we had always desired to have a child together. After multiple surgeries and what seemed like endless months of fruitless attempts to conceive, Wendy’s admission of fear as we stood silently in our despair on the back porch felt like a giant weight on our souls.

The story of John the Baptist’s parents in today’s chapter holds a special place in my heart. There is so much happening in the subtext of Zechariah’s conversation with the angel Gabriel that is completely lost on any reader who has not walked through the long, depressing, desolate path of infertility.

A few of observations:

  • I find it ironic that Dr. Luke diagnoses Zech and Liz’s infertility as “Elizabeth was unable to conceive.” Perhaps there’s more to this story than is told. Nevertheless, having walked this journey I know that it’s also possible the low sperm count or poor motility were the culprits of their childlessness. Of course, this medical knowledge was not available in their day, but it makes me sad that Elizabeth got the blame.
  • I’ve been digging into the theme of exile on this chapter-a-day journey over the past months. The truth is that Elizabeth and her husband were in a personal exile of their own. When you are walking the path of infertility you realize that the vast majority of people don’t understand and it’s usually emotionally painful when they try. Furthermore, you’re not sure you want to talk to those who’ve been through it themselves. Those who walked the path and ultimately conceived are just a depressing reminder that it hasn’t worked for you. Those who never conceived are a reminder that “never” is a possibility which you don’t want to face and don’t know what to do with (a la Wendy’s confession). Infertility can be horrifically isolating for the couple going through it.
  • When the angel tells Zech “Your prayer has been answered.” My husband’s heart shoots back with a cynical “Which one?” If Zech’s heart was like mine, then there’s a section of it calloused over from month-after-month, year-after-year of fervent, unanswered prayers and wiping away his wife’s river of tears.
  • When Zech asks Gabriel “How can I be sure of this?” he is, once again, being defensive and protective of the hearts of both his wife and his own. Infertility is a vicious cycle of summoning faith, raising hopes, and having them dashed again and again and again and again. The last thing the elderly husband wants to do is put his wife through it one more time.

It’s easy for the casual reader to point the finger at Zech’s lack of faith. I’m sure many Jesus followers will hear messages this Advent season comparing Mary’s simple acceptance of Gabriel’s message to Zech’s rather obvious doubt. My heart goes out to the dude. He’s been made the Steve Bartman of the Christmas story for two thousand years, but I get where he’s coming from.

In the quiet this morning I find myself contemplating the long-term effects that disappointment and unanswered prayer can have on one’s spirit. As for what to do with “never,” Wendy and I worked through it together with God. We discovered, and continue to discover, deep lessons about joy, grief, faith, perseverance, character, maturity, and hope. At the same time, there is a lingering sadness that rears itself unexpectedly at odd times, which in turn pushes me back to the lessons already learned. I plumb their depths once more.

Still, if Gabriel showed up in my office this morning and told me Wendy was going to have a baby, I totally believe that the subtext of my reaction would land somewhere between sarcastic and cynical.

Zechariah would understand.

When Trouble Unexpectedly Blows In

In his time of trouble King Ahaz became even more unfaithful to the Lord.
2 Chronicles 28:22 (NIV)

Just a few weeks ago a tornado descended on the small community where Wendy and I live. That day there were some 27 tornadoes that ripped through Iowa. The tornado here in Pella hit a local manufacturing company, wreaking havoc on multiple plants and turning cars in the parking lot into a pile scrap metal. Since it happened in the middle of the workday, it seems to me a miracle that no one was killed. Only a handful of people were injured, and none seriously.

In the weeks that have followed, it’s been fascinating to watch the community mobilize. The business that took the brunt of the damage is already in the process of rebuilding. Churches and charities are working with those in need. In a time of unexpected trouble, I can see the strength and faith of our community and its people. We’ll be alright.

Along my journey I’ve observed that times of trouble and unexpected tragedy are windows into Spirit. When trouble and tragedy unexpectedly descend like a tornado and blow through our lives, our response reveals what kind of spiritual foundation lies beneath the surface of our lives. It makes known how deep our spiritual roots descend into Life’s soil.

In today’s chapter, the story of King Ahaz reads like a spiritual tragedy. Not only does Ahaz not follow God, but he seems willing to follow any god, any time, any where. He goes from god-to-god sacrificing and paying tribute. When trouble hits Ahaz reaches out to Assyria for help, only to be double-crossed. Ahaz dishonors some of the articles of Solomon’s temple to try to buy his way out of trouble. It doesn’t work. When defeated by Damascus, Ahaz worships their gods in hopes that it will help. It doesn’t.

Ahaz is so willing to believe anything that his troubles reveal that he believes nothing. He has no spiritual roots. He has no foundation. His life was one of constantly grasping for anything only to be left with nothing. He was such a tragic failure, that the people of Judah refuse to entomb Ahaz’s dead body with the other kings.

I’m reminded this morning of how James put it: “the one who doubts is like the wave of the sea, blown about and tossed by the wind.” I’m also reminded of how the Psalmist contrasted the righteous and the wicked in the lyric of Psalm 1. The righteous are described as strong trees with deep roots that continually produce good fruit and don’t wither in trouble. The wicked, however, are like dust blown helplessly in the wind.

On this life journey, I believe almost every one of us will experience trouble and tragedy unexpectedly descending into our lives like a tornado. In that moment, I find out what kind of spiritual roots I’ve developed. If my roots go deep then I will weather the storm, get back to work, and come through the experience even stronger. If I have no spiritual roots then I think I’m going to be more like Ahaz, blown about, grasping for something, anything to hold onto.

(Thanks to everyone who reached out to make sure Wendy and I were alright. We live on the opposite side of town from where the tornado struck and were not in harms way.)

Faith, Strength, and Suffering

After Rehoboam’s position as king was established and he had become strong, he and all Israel with him abandoned the law of the Lord.
2 Chronicles 12:1 (NIV)

I am currently doing character work and studying my lines for a play I’ll be in this October. It’s a brilliant piece of historical fiction called Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. I play the great 20th century Christian writer and thinker, C.S. Lewis. Lewis pays a visit to fellow 20th century intellectual Sigmund Freud (who will be played by my dear friend, Kevin McQuade) who was a staunch atheist. The play is set in the final weeks of the eminent psychologist’s life. Freud had escaped Nazi Germany and set up his practice in London. Ironically, the battle of world views between these two great thinkers happens to take place on the very day Britain declares war on Germany.

As Lewis and Freud discuss the nature of human suffering, Lewis makes the following observation: “We don’t think of God when we’re motoring in the countryside, only when we’re stuck on the railroad tracks and see the train coming.”

This line came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter about King Rehoboam. The opening line of the Chronicler’s account states that Rehoboam and the nation abandoned the law of the Lord after “his position had been established and he had become strong.” In other words, Rehoboam clung to the religion of his father, grandfather, and ancestors while he was struggling, when his kingdom was in crisis, when the rebel Jereboam was leading 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes against him, and when his grip on the throne was in doubt. As soon as his power was shored up and he regained his strength, God was no longer a necessity.

Lewis’ observation is simple, but it captures what I have observed in my own Life journey to be a very human trait. When things are going well and life is easy, when I’m experiencing a runner’s high on the road of life, then it’s easy to trust my own strength and fortune. I don’t feel a particular need for divine connection, intervention, or faith. It’s when the shit hits the proverbial fan and I’m suffering from circumstances that are out of my control that I suddenly feel the need for connection and intervention from divine power that is outside of myself. In the play, Lewis follows the previous text I quoted with his now famous line: “If pleasure is [God’s] whisper, pain is his megaphone.”

For the record, Freud responds to Lewis by arguing the opposite. He views his sufferings (and all suffering in the world) are reason to doubt and discredit any notions of God and faith. It’s a fascinating play. You should come see it ;-).

This morning I’m thinking about my current stretch on Life’s road. I’m looking back at my own experiences in both times of strength and times of suffering. Is there a contrast in my own faith during those contrasting stretches of the journey? Does my faith wane when I’m cruising along on Life’s road experiencing runner’s high? Is my faith only intense in proportion to the intensity of suffering I’m feeling in the moment? I’d like to think not. Jesus said that the sun shines and the rain falls on both the righteous and the unrighteous. Times of strength and times of suffering are common to every person. My faith is central to either circumstance. It’s my sunscreen on life’s beach, my umbrella in life’s storm.

Note: Freud’s Last Session is a private production sponsored by the theatre department of Central College in Pella, Iowa. Performances will be October 24-27, 2018 at 7:30 p.m.

The Work

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.
1 Chronicles 28:20 (NIV)

When all the work Solomon had done for the temple of the Lord was finished
Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.
2 Chronicles 5:3-4, 13-14 (NIV)

King David had been anointed king of Israel by the prophet Samuel while he was still as a boy. Yet, for many years he lived on the run from the reigning King Saul as an outlaw and mercenary. Before becoming King of Israel, first David would be crowned King of his own tribe, Judah. Then began the hard work of reuniting the other tribes into a united kingdom and establishing Jerusalem as its capitol.

From his anointing as King to the fulfillment of the anointing was some 40 years of work to survive, waiting for God to fulfill what had been promised and prophesied many years before.

Once King, David had a passionate vision. He wanted to build a great temple for God in Jerusalem, a permanent version of the tent temple prescribed by God through Moses for the Hebrews as they left Egypt. It would not happen in his lifetime. David made plans, put certain pieces in place, and made provisions. The work, however, would pass to his son, Solomon. “Be strong and courageous,” David admonished his son, “and do the work.”

For over eleven years Solomon diligently carried out his father’s wishes and the construction was completed. It was another year before the dedication would take place.

In today’s chapter, the temple is dedicated. At the inaugural worship service a manifestation of God’s presence, a cloud, fills the temple just as it had filled the tent back in Moses day.

When reading through God’s Message, it’s easy to lose sense of just how long it took for things to happen. David is anointed King, but it took 40 years before it was fulfilled. Solomon promised to build the temple, but it took 12 years of diligent work before it was completed.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve experienced promises, visions, and the prophetic. I’ve also been prone to expect fulfillment in the speed and ease with which I can read David and Solomon’s story from one chapter to the next. When things don’t happen as quickly or as simply as I desired and expected, I fight impatience. Doubts creep in. Faith becomes a struggle. The day-to-day work of pressing on towards the goal often feels like a slog.

This morning as I read about the completion of Solomon’s Temple and as I pictured the cloud of God’s presence being so thick that the priests couldn’t perform their sacrificial work, it struck me that this exciting moment of fulfillment was itself the end of a very long journey. The moment was preceded by a lifetime and two generations of diligent work through faith, struggle, doubt, victory, tragedy, promise, failure, setbacks and hope.

I hear a whisper in my spirit this morning. “Be strong and courageousand do the work.”

And so begins another day.

featured photo courtesy of tjblackwell via Flickr

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

“But today I am freeing you from the chains on your wrists. Come with me to Babylon, if you like, and I will look after you; but if you do not want to, then don’t come. Look, the whole country lies before you; go wherever you please.”
Jeremiah 40:4 (NIV)

Some time ago a potential opportunity presented itself to me. It was unexpected, and ultimately not meant to be. However, for a few weeks Wendy and I grappled with the notion of picking up the tent pegs of the life we’ve established and moving on. It does seem, at times, as if the grass is always greener, the possibilities broader, and the road easier “in a new place.” Present reality and circumstance always feels like such a slog. It’s easy for my imagination to conjure how easy it must be in a different place with different circumstances.

Today’s chapter of Jeremiah’s story continues to unfold the events after the City of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, had left Jeremiah in the custody of the Captain of the guard. When the time came for the Captain to return to Babylon he releases Jeremiah from his chains and gives Jeremiah a choice. Go back to Babylon with the Captain and all the exiles, or stay in Judah with the remnant of people left to work the land (the poorest, oldest, and sickest of the population). Jeremiah, who is now advanced in years himself, chooses to stay.

Should I stay or should I go?

This morning I’m thinking about that question which I have grappled with on different occasions in my life journey. I’ve also walked beside friends and family members who have been presented with that question in their own respective journeys. The answer, I have found, is rarely clear or easy.

What I have found, however, is that sometimes there is no clear choice, and really no wrong choice. I choose to stay, or to go, and God weaves my choice into the tapestry of my story and journey. Other times I have found clarity for the right choice through prayer, contemplation, and conversation with my closest of confidants. The more I pray and ponder the more peace I feel with one choice or the other, and pursuing the Spirit’s flow to the path of peace is always a wise choice. Still other times I have found that God makes it very clear through a direct spiritual word, a sign, or the word of a prophet. I have stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for other posts.

This morning I’m thinking about Jeremiah and the choice given him. Was it hard for him? Did God give him clear direction what to do? Or did staying in the rubble of Jerusalem just seem easier for an old man than the long journey to a foreign land? Today’s chapter doesn’t say, but I can imagine his thoughts and questions.

As for me, I’m grateful for where my journey has led me. I’m thankful to be in this place, in this reality, with this people, even when the present circumstances feel like a slog (and they often do). I’m have peace. Last night Wendy and I sat on our back patio and stared out at the back yard which spread out like a huge, thick carpet on a beautiful spring evening in Iowa.

The green grass I’m standing on right here, right now, is just fine.

“From a Distance”

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance….
Hebrews 11:13 (NIV)

Yesterday morning a woman came up to me amidst our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and shared with me some things that God has been teaching her of late. These things dove-tailed with some of the very insights God has been revealing to me in my contemplation.

I just wonder why it’s taken me 35 years to see these things,” I laughed, shaking my  head.

Because we didn’t need to see them until now,” she answered matter-of-factly. “They are for this time and place.”

I find it equally fascinating that I can read God’s Message over and over and over again, but there are certain things which leap off the page as if I’ve never seen them before. That’s what happened as I read this morning’s chapter, which is a very famous chapter about faith. The author of this letter to  early Hebrew followers of Jesus is a Hall of Fame walk through of the ancient heroes of faith. From Cain and Abel through Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho (I love that Rahab was included in the list), the writer shows how each of these ancients embraced faith.

What I had never seen clearly until this morning was that twice the author acknowledges that in many cases these heroes of faith did not receive what was promised during their earthly journey. First it’s mentioned (vs. 13) that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed that their tribes would become a great nation and have their own “promised land” to call home. The “promised land” was never established during their lifetimes. They lived in pursuit of a promise that they would not realize in their lifetimes.

At the very end of the chapter, the writer reiterates [emphasis added]:

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I have learned in my own journey, particularly as Wendy and I have walked through the long valley of infertility, that there is a certain depth of faith that one only realizes when what is promised is not received (or not received as expected) in this lifetime. I have never understood why God answers the prayers of some and not others. I don’t know why some are healed and some are not. I don’t know why some get pregnant and we did not.

There are answers out there. My spirit sees them “from a distance” as the author of Hebrews wrote.

I have faith in that.

“I’ve Got This”

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”
Matthew 6:30-34 (MSG)

This past week was our first trip down to the lake this year. I have said before that our family’s place on the lake always has been what many call a thin place. It’s a place where things of the Spirit are perceived with greater clarity.

So it was that I began to realize during our time at the lake just how anxious I have become about certain things in life. A bout of insomnia and some time of reflection unearthed a host of things I have been increasingly worried about. I’ve been harboring anxiety; My mind dwelling on things I ultimately can’t control. Being at heart a pessimist, my natural personality tends to take these little anxieties, hide them in the dark corners of my mind, and quietly grow them like bacteria.

On our drive home, I brought these things out into the open in conversation with Wendy. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that fears and anxieties tend to lose their power when brought out and exposed to the light of conversation. It was helpful to talk it out, and to have Wendy challenge each anxiety with her lock-tight logic.

Yesterday after our local gathering of Jesus followers, I had a few friends praying over me. After a while in fairly routine prayer mode one of my friends, who is a prophet, said out of the blue, “You’re carrying too much. Stop worrying about…”  they then proceeded to name, specifically, the things I’ve been anxious about. There was more that was said, but suffice it to say that I got the message.

This morning I’m reminded that we as humans sometimes need repeated reminders. In today’s chapter Jesus continues His classic “Sermon on the Mount.” One of the simplest reasons I continue to daily journey through God’s Message is that often I’m given exactly the spiritual reminder I need. So it is today. It’s like Jesus personally following up on Wendy’s reasoned logic and the words spoken through my friend yesterday.

“Tom, when has worrying done anything for you? Chill out. Keep going. Stay focused on me. I’ll take care of you.

“I’ve got this.”