Last Saturday, one of the parents of my former students, asked me to participate in a “right of passage” ceremony for his son. As one of four individuals charged with speaking into the life of this young man, I was asked to address the topic of “faith.” What follows below is a transcript of our time together. With this young man’s permission, I now share these remarks with you.
So … your dad has asked me to talk to you this morning on matters related to “faith.” That’s my assigned topic. The real irony, of course, is that if your dad knew me in a more personal context, he would know that faith is not an easy subject for me to discuss. Just because I often teach on the subject of the bible and what it means for us to take the bible seriously doesn’t mean that faith has ever come easily for me. Truth be told, faith has always been a bit of a dogfight for me – a bit of an exercise in trying to maintain a white-knuckled grip as I dangled on the edge of a cliff leading down to a rocky, jagged ravine.
For some people, faith is as simple as the bumper sticker they proudly display on their car:
“Jesus said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
You, of course, have no idea how I wish it were that easy for me. But truth is truth, right? And we’re here to speak truth this morning, so that’s what we’re going to do. When I see bumper stickers like that, the first thing that crosses my mind is: “Which Jesus?” The Jesus of History? The Christ of Faith? Or how about the Jesus you’ve crafted in your own mind because you’re too lazy or too scared to actually take Him on His own terms? Is that the Jesus you’re talking about?
Years ago, I started a young adult ministry at our church; and on the very first night, we had about eight people show up. No one knew anyone else in the room at that point; and so there was a general sense of discomfort that just hung in the air. Not knowing where else to begin, I opened the discussion with a simple question: “What do you think of when you think about the God of the Old Testament – the God of the Hebrew Scriptures?” And after several moments of painfully awkward silence, this 22-year old, strung-out, young guy who looked like he hadn’t showered or slept in three days tentatively spoke up. I’ll never forget what he said to me.
“Well … I don’t really care for the God of the Old Testament. He’s just this … angry, rage monkey. So I’m in love with Jesus. But to be honest, I don’t know if I’m really in love with Jesus, or just in love with the Jesus I’ve created in my own mind.”
Did you hear what he just said? I’d give half the state of Texas and all of Illinois back to the Native Americans if I could just get every Christian I know to have a moment of genuine clarity like that. “I don’t know if I’m really in love with Jesus, or just in love with the Jesus I’ve created in my own mind.” Wow…
So I guess if I have anything to say to you on the subject of faith this morning, it begins with that. If your faith is going to have any substance – if it’s going to be rooted in anything that remotely resembles veracity – than it needs to begin with self-awareness and a fearless desire to speak truth in circles where truth may not always be welcome.
Of course, I wish I could tell you that the church is always a safe place to do this, but if you haven’t figured it out just yet, allow me to be the bearer of bad tidings. For the truth is, much of what characterizes the modern American church is nothing but a poor vaudevillian show, where the audience hasn’t yet clued into the fact that the there is a man behind the curtain pulling on our emotional strings even as he dazzles us with stories of a “country” we’ve never seen.
Now some might read this and be tempted to dismiss it as nothing more than post-modern cynicism. But nothing could be farther from the truth, my friend. Self-awareness and a willingness to take a long hard look in the mirror is actually the first step on a journey towards a faith that refuses to go asunder when the boat goes down in the storm. And hear me clearly: if your boat hasn’t already started to sink, it will at some point in your future. And the only thing you’ll have to decide when it does go down is whether or not you want to try to live out this “faith” in a context where the “safe” and ecclesially-approved answers aren’t ringing true.
This brings me to the subject of doubt. For many Christians, “doubt” is a bit of a dirty, vulgar word that is best kept under wraps in polite company. You can talk about struggling with your “devotions.” You can talk about struggling with your “prayer life.” Heck, in the right company, you can even talk about struggling with certain sins so long as you realize that there is both an “approved” and “unapproved” list; and so long as you don’t make the mistake of taking about sins of the latter kind. But doubt … this is not something that we tend to talk about, because deep down inside, many of us fear that if brought to light, our doubts will be our undoing. But you must learn to talk about doubt, Tyler, because if you don’t learn to talk about it – if you don’t face it head-on – you’ll never know whether your faith is anchored to reality or just floating like a buoy on choppy waters, tossed to-and-fro as the seas around you continue to rage.
So what do we do with doubt? Beyond just talking about it, what do we actually do with it? As I alluded to above, I think some people just elect to stuff it deep down inside in the hopes that by burying it, it will never rise to the surface and will never need to be addressed. But if there is one thing I can assure you of this morning, it is this: doubt doesn’t just work on a conscious level. Doubt is like an underground stream that slowly erodes the foundation of your home, even as you go blissfully about your day-to-day business, tending to the “practicalities” of this world. So if you are going to be a man of faith, Tyler, than you are going to have to drag your doubts out into the open where you can examine them in the clear light of day.
Is this frightening? Yes. Is it lonely? Quite often. Is it necessary? … Only you can make that call.
If you want to know what it looks like to explore your faith amidst doubt, then I suggest you take a look at the photo below.
Do you know what this is? This is a picture of the Crazy Horse monument in Custer County, South Dakota; and as you can see, the monument is far from finished. But I want you to look at that photo and I want you to try to picture it before anyone began to work on it. Back then, it was just a mountain in the hills of the Dakotas, unremarkable to the average passerby. In many ways, this is a good metaphor for doubt, because doubt, while rarely acknowledged, is actually wholly unremarkable. It’s just another mountain that obscures the view of the horizon.
But what did it take for the early artists to stare down that mountain and envision something greater – something beautiful? It took faith that there was a sculpture inside just waiting to be revealed. And it took tools like dynamite, dump trucks, hammers and chisels. Sometimes, in the early days, TNT was strategically planted because large chunks of rock needed to be blown free. But as the work grew closer to the sculpture that was waiting to be revealed, new tools were employed for the careful shaping of what remained.
The Christian faith is much like that, Tyler. Contrary to what many will tell you, there are large chunks of rock that need to be blasted away if you are going to get to the core of what it means to be Christian. The elevation of reason as the sole mediator of what is real is a enormous stone just waiting for demolition. And the same goes for the culturally approved narrative that we are fundamentally good people. This is just another myth that betrays the human desire to see itself in the best possible light. Church as performance. “Culture Wars” masquerading as Christian “witness.” American dreams as the goal of a good life. All of these things are facets of the mountain that feed our doubts as they obscure the sculpture that lies within.
So you’re going to need to do some hard demolition work, Tyler – work that doesn’t always look pretty to those that are watching. In fact, as you blow the face of the mountain away, many are going to scoff at your efforts, dismissing you as something of a modern day Don Quixote chasing imaginary giants and “demons” that are merely windmills.
But look again, friend. As you begin to peel the face of the mountain away, you can see the face of the sculpture, staring out at you, imploring you, calling out to you in your white-washed tomb:
“Come forth Lazarus, and take my hand.”