In a comment on a recent post, Brian posed the following question:
What happened to change your thinking/attitude? The problems you encountered on your return from Africa are still there. The same attitudes are present in our churches – perhaps redirected away from fund-raising, but still there. Obviously, you were able talk, complain, and question. Were there ever any real answers to restore your soul or was it simply rediscovering your faith in a God and His world that is sometimes too complicated to fully understand?
I haven’t been dodging the question, but I’ve wanted to give it some good thought and post the answer here for all to see, because I think it’s probably a question worth looking at.
First, I think Brian is right. The same attitudes that were present after my return from Africa are still present today. At the core, very little has changed. Our churches are still plagued by the same petty attitudes, and there hasn’t been a magical renaissance where people have suddenly started to grasp our position in a global community. I still often enter into church and feel as though I’m with a large group of people who doesn’t really understand who I am, or where I’ve come from, or what I’ve seen. I still find myself frustrated often when at any number of attitudes, events, and people in spiritual arenas. So in that sense, it’s hard to see that anything has changed, or that anything is better than it was before.
So what is different?
I think the first real answer that in truth was probably the most important one was this: I am not alone. It’s easy for us to forget that there are people all around us, and easy for us to buy into the lie that we’re the only ones who are experiencing our lot in life. The reality is that is seldom the case. While it sounds rather hokey, the truth of the matter is that the safe places I found really were one of the best answers I could have possibly imagined. They simultaneously answered two of the most important questions I was dealing with: 1) Am I the only one? and 2) Are the things I’m experiencing “wrong”? I think if the answer to either of those questions had been “yes”, I wouldn’t have stuck with it. I was fortunate to find people who were willing to walk with me and encourage me, but I wonder how many other people are out there who didn’t have those people for them in their time of need.
I think the second path to restoration was service. At the National Campus Minister’s seminar this summer, Kelly and I gave a talk on student leadership. One of the questions that was posed to us was from a minister who had a leader in his group who was “on the edge of faith”, as it were. He was asking whether he should put faith and trust in him, even though the student wasn’t really 100% sure that he believed in God. My answer was yes – I would give him the responsibility, work with him, and encourage him to continue questioning. Afterward there was a dissenter who discussed the topic with me at length, but with the amount of information I had, I still stuck by my answer, and the reason is simple: I feel like placing people in a position of leadership and service is a fantastic restoration. Often we are worried that if we stick people in positions of responsibility when they’re searching, they may burn out or break because of their fragile state. While I can’t speak for anyone else, I feel like in my case the fact I had people to minister to forced me to turn my attention to others and experience the joy of service instead of the doubt of self-examination. It doesn’t mean that my questions went away or that I suddenly had all the answers, but it did mean that I had a higher purpose than serving myself, and I was able to grow and learn through God using me in the lives of others.
Finally, I think an expansion of Brian’s last statement summed up an internal change that was profound and valuable.
First, I began to understand that, contrary to what we’ve taught and believe, the words “I don’t know” are three of the most powerful words in the English language. We’ve pressed people to be certain about what they know and believe, but the reality is that each of us is wrong about something, and none of us really knows what we’re wrong about and what we’re right about. Instead of trying to pretend I had it all together, I began to try to discover the liberation of uncertainty. While an entire generation of people has thrived in and demanded a world of certainty, my belief is that the next generation will necessitate a world of honest uncertainty. Being able to admit that there were things I didn’t know and didn’t understand was therapeutic in so many ways. It took the responsibility of explaining everything off of me and put it back on God – it removed from me the qualities of “perfection” and deity that had been placed there. While I used to fear the idea of not being able to know or explain God, I now take comfort in a God who is greater than I, and knows and understands more than I.
Second, I began to believe that it was actually possible to coexist with someone I disagreed with. I realized that on some sort of fundamental level, the Good News Jesus brings can’t be some message about intellectual superiority or elitism – in fact it seems to be exactly the opposite. If we can’t coexist with our brothers and sisters in Christ – even if we disagree with them – then our Good News is rather empty. As a result, the burden is on each of us to look past the differences and shortcomings and failings of our fellow Christians – even when it seems they’re actively working against our relationship with God. This doesn’t mean that we no longer get frustrated with each other, but simply that we live as what we are – the body of Christ, held together by Christ, living for Christ, and existing in Christ.
Each of these ideas proved to be a strong pillar on which I began to reconstruct a new foundation, rediscovering what it meant to live as a follower of Christ. I feel like I continue to discover daily a little bit more what that means, and I pray that process will continue for as long as I live. My hope is that each of us will look for people who are on the edge of faith and seek to draw them into relationship with the body of Christ. I hope we will be able to find people who need a safe place of rest, who are longing to be told they’re not alone and they’re not wrong; that they don’t have to have all the answers, and that there is healing in service.