Saturday, February 3, 2018

“Finding God In the Midst of Doubt”

            This Sunday, February 4th, I will resume my focus on “Finding God in Everyday Life.”  I believe that we sometimes have difficulty experiencing the Divine in everyday life because we are not actively seeking God’s presence in the ordinary.  Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the ways in which we can become more open and sensitive to God’s presence in our everyday lives.  This week our focus shifts somewhat as we explore finding God in doubt.  In these circumstances, we may be actually searching for God—or, at least seeking some fleeting evidence of God’s existence.  Yet, despite our best intentions, God seems aloof or—perhaps—absent altogether. 

We begin to doubt God’s existence.  Or, we encounter the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness of God’s Church and the self-proclaimed faithful who call themselves “Christians.”  Under these circumstances we begin to question whether or not a God of love and peace would tolerate such apostasy.  Since God seems to tolerate specifically anti-Christian attitudes and behaviors in the Church, we question whether there really is a “God.” 

            This is a difficult exploration, which is not easily presented in a worship setting.  I have struggled with how to develop this question in a sermon.  Ultimately, I decided that the best I can do is to simply tell my story of doubt and then how I re-claimed my Christian faith.  I grew up in a small Southern town which was religiously quite homogeneous.  Everyone in my small town was either Methodist, Presbyterian, or Baptist.  There were really no other options—just these three mainline Protestant denominations.  Further, pretty much everyone in town attended one of these three churches; there was a sparse handful of people who did not regularly attend one of the churches.  So, as I grew older, I did not really question my Christian faith that deeply.  I just more or less took it for granted.

            After graduating from high school, I matriculated to a very diverse, cosmopolitan university.  In that context, I quickly encountered people who were religiously very different from me: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, as well as agnostics and atheists and persons exploring indigenous spirituality.  I soon developed friendships with other students who had very different faiths—or, no religious faith at all. 

Over time, I began to see my Christian faith differently.  I took advantage of the University’s Department of Religion to study other religions.  Jainism, in particular, made an impression on me.  Some of my studies challenged my faith, such as the claim by Karl Marx that “Religion is the opium of the people.”  Some of my new friends were not at all hesitant to critique my Christian faith.  I became acutely aware of how Christianity falls far short of the lofty ideals taught by Christ Jesus.  For the first time, I began to see clearly the hypocrisy, greed, and sinfulness rampant in the Christian Church—and especially among many Christians who proclaimed—even bragged about—how devout they were.  I began to doubt whether God even existed.  By the fall semester of my Sophomore year, I had become an atheist.

            For the next three semesters, I was something of an atheist.  Oh, I continued to dabble in religion.  I took some more college courses.  I especially loved ethics.  There were also those occasional moments when I had a deep spiritual experience, which didn’t jibe with my intellectual position of atheism.  For instance, sometimes when I was running in the forest, I would be overcome with a spiritual feeling of being in harmony with Creation.  These were small, first steps back to my Christian faith.

            The big step came when a professor suggested that I read Gustavo Gutierrez’ book, A Theology of Liberation, which had just been translated into English.  Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest who had a doctorate in theology, argued that God makes a preferential option for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized people within our midst.  Although God loves all people, God makes a preferential option for those who are suffering the most, just as a parent will devote extra care and attention to a sick child, temporarily elevating the sick child and their care above their other healthy children.  Building upon this theological claim about God, Gutierrez argued that faithful followers of Christ must give special attention to those who are hungry, homeless, poor, or oppressed.  This attention could not simply be acts of charity, as important as these acts are.  Instead, Christians must analyze and work for structural change in the socio-economic system which held the poor and exploited down.

            For me, A Theology of Liberation was transformative.   It offered me a bridge back to the Christian faith.  I began to see that Christianity did not have to be a trite, clich├ęd opium, which kept us from focusing on what is really important in life.  Instead, it offered a lifestyle and an avenue for genuinely changing the socio-economic structures so that justice, abundance, peace, and love all grew and flourished.  Gutierrez’ book helped me see Christian faith from a completely different perspective:  not as an “opium for the people,” but rather as a potent, potential force for peace, justice, and the flourishing of all persons—and of Creation.

Gradually, little-by-little, my faith began to be restored.  However, it was not the same Christian faith as my childhood.  Now, my faith was much deeper, much more fully examined, much more nuanced, much more mature—and, much stronger.  Looking back on this process, I can see how much my Christian faith grew as a result of my doubt.  More profoundly, I can see how I experienced God in the process; not in a manipulative way, but rather as never abandoning me throughout my journey of doubt.

As I grew through my reclaimed Christian faith, I began to read passages of scripture from a different perspective.  One of the more dramatic shifts in my perspective occurred in my reading and understanding of Isaiah 6:  6-8.  In this chapter, we hear the “call story” of how Isaiah was called by God to become a prophet:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Now, instead of reading this text as just the account of how God called Isaiah to his prophetic mission, I began to see this as a question which God was asking me.  That is, literally, God was asking me:  “Whom shall I send?  Richard, will you go?”  And, I saw myself replying, “Here am I; send me!”  And so, I moved from doubting God’s existence to believing that God had given me a special call to help with the work of establishing the Kingdom of God.  As my faith deepened over the years, I have come to see that God’s call is not restricted to just Isaiah—or, just me.  No.  Instead, God calls each of us to the task of establishing God’s Reign by working for justice, peace, and the flourishing of all Creation.  Each of the faithful has a special, unique role to play in creating the socio-economic structures needed so that everyone experiences justice, abundance, peace, justice, and love.

      If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, February 4th, as we explore how we can experience the Divine in everyday life.  In addition, to my proclamation, others from our church will share how they experience the Divine through parenting, how they experience the Divine even in the midst of doubt, and how they experience the Divine through their work as an attorney.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.  

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.