Atheism, de-conversion, and The Puppy Who Lost His Way

This Sunday I’ll be preaching for St. Petersburg Presbyterian Church for the third time. I’ll be wrapping up a series on faith and doubt. Thanks to a facebook friend, who actually happens to be a real life friend of mine-though now separated by 900 miles-I came across this article of an Atheistic de-conversion. It is the journey from faith to doubt to disbelief (although if you read the article it does seem that doubt preceded disbelief for only a very short period of time). I love reading articles about conversion, particularly someone coming from a hostile atheist background to saving faith in Christ. But I think these articles of de-conversion are also helpful, even though they can be quite discouraging. We can still usually learn something from them.

Here are some things I took away from the article, aside from simply being saddened by this dark descent into disbelief.

1.) The relationship with one’s father is often key.While this gal couches her disbelief in science and rationality, I think there is much more going on.
According to one pastor who started an outreach ministry, asking a friend or neighbor about his/her father opens the door to understanding barriers to a relationship with God. For instance, people often reject faith because their father rejected faith. It is of course no tit-for-tat, but there does seem to some connectedness. Understanding that relationship can help you minister to that person.
When I read in this article that this gal ran away from home and has no relationship with her father, I cannot assume that had nothing to do with it. Yes her mother is a Christian, but how much of her rejecting God is her rejecting her father? I wonder. 

Bad relationships with fathers seem to be incubators for doubt. But, according to this pastors experience in ministry, they can also be open doors to faith based discussions.

2.) I don’t think anyone makes a decision to follow or un-follow, believe or disbelieve in God or specifically His plan of salvation through His Son from an entirely rational basis. I’ve heard atheists on a discussion panel explain that they got into Atheism because their friends were such. This story of de-conversion is not a treatise on a pure quest for rationalism. Now I think she advertises it as such, but there is too much baggage she is so quick to leave behind. And I don’t blame her for some of this seems pretty sad. But there is an emotional experience she is quick to leave behind, and I don’t think it is simply because “the bible lied to me.”

3.) What question is the person really asking? In general the post-modern mantra is “does it work or help” (pragmatism) more so than “is it true” (modernity/rationalism)? This gal seems to fit into the modernist quest. I just read Andy Stanley’s Deep and Wide, and he argues that most people simply want to know “does this work.” But I find very rarely does someone fit into a purely rational or purely pragmatic category. Where I live now, and when I lived in Bradenton, I found skeptics to fit into more the modernist rational variety. Many people do ask the question, “Would I like what I would become?” So we have to make sure to present the gospel in such a way as to respond to these “defeater” beliefs (what Tim Keller refers to as the barriers we have to deal with before we can actually get to the gospel). For the Jews, Paul discerned it as “power” for the Greeks it was “wisdom.” (I Cor 1). What is it for your friends?

4.) Where was the gospel?  This gal was allegedly raised in a grace-less home. One always needs to consider the source (an estranged daughter), but it is hard to misinterpret 10-15 beatings based upon a child not obediently responding the first time. Regardless, from her perspective, there was plenty of law but not a lot of gospel or good news. And regardless of whether or not the dad felt like he was showing grace, the message perceived (which is still important, for if someone doesn’t feel like we’re showing grace, maybe we’re not!) was I’m proud of your performance. Not a delight in the person but a delight in the performance of your child. That’s not grace. As a parent, that’s something I never want my kid to think. I was only proud of how well he did and not simply that I loved him simply because he was my son.

Would a gal be so quick to “jump ship” if she had at least had an experience of grace, where she could honestly struggle and question? I would like to think so. But in the end, I think what this gal is rejecting is more than just a belief in God; she is rejecting a form of moralistic behavioral performance based Christianity that has at the very least been perceived as Christless.

5.) Don’t be so quick to jump ship. Doubting is not a bad exercise. But doubts are best done within the community of faith. If you try to discern whether or not God exists, and you posed certain question, and you don’t get satisfactory answers, then it might be good to look a little bit harder.

…This changed one day during a conversation with my friend Alex. I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off him, and one particular day, I asked him this: If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?
 

Alex had no answer — and I realized I didn’t either. Everyone had always explained this problem away using the principle that Jesus’ sacrifice meant we wouldn’t have to follow those ancient laws. 
But that wasn’t an answer. In fact, by the very nature of the problem, there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.


 

I still remember sitting there in my dorm room bunk bed, staring at the cheap plywood desk, and feeling something horrible shift inside me, a vast chasm opening up beneath my identity, and I could only sit there and watch it fall away into darkness. The Bible is not infallible, logic whispered from the depths, and I had no defense against it. If it’s not infallible, you’ve been basing your life’s beliefs on the oral traditions of a Middle Eastern tribe. The Bible lied to you.

Everything I was, everything I knew, the structure of my reality, my society, and my sense of self suddenly crumbled away, and I was left naked.

That’s not a big question of mine. I have them. Plenty of questions, but they are more of the “why did this happen variety” (which ultimately reveals a latent belief anyway but that is for another post) than of the philosophical variety like this. But as Billy Madison so eloquently argued in reference to the book The Puppy Who Lost His Way, “You can’t give up looking for your dog after half an hour, you have to put up some signs, and get your butt out there and find your bleeping dog!”

 I know this gal had grown up believing the bible, but according to her own words, she disbelieved very quickly and in isolation from real gospel centered community.

If answers aren’t satisfactory, we have to spend time and be willing to spend time with doubters. There are people smarter than us who have asked harder questions and have found intellectually satisfying answers. CS Lewis anyone? Please don’t be like the boy in The Puppy Who Lost His Way and give up after half an hour. Don’t let doubt grow into disbelief in the matter of minutes, hours, or even days. Let’s put up some posters and find, or help others find, that bleeping dog.

 

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A Downton Doubting Thomas? That would have been a good idea this time

Downton Abbey season 3 has ended some time ago and I’m now beginning to wonder whether or not Duck Dynasty will end up taking its place. I almost feel anachronistic blogging about it, as though I’m writing about “that movie” that just came out called Star Wars. Will it rebound and once again charm the nation across the pond or will it go the way of the Titanic? Regardless of whether or not season 4 will be worth watching, one thing the bloody season finale cannot take away are the number of fantastic illustrations Downton which preceded it. One of my personal favorites came from my least favorite person on the show: Thomas.

Always the schemer (reminds me a bit of Genesis’ account of Jacob I guess in that regard), Thomas hatches a plan to that will get him really rich, really quickly. He soon realizes after the War, that if he buys up all kinds of cooking supplies, Downton will, ironically, then be dependent upon this servant. Apparently a black market deal, with a man who only met in some shady place, is exactly what he’s been waiting for. 

After stockpiling his goods, he offers the head cook a chance to give them a test run. The cake or sufflet or truffles or corn-dogs (I can’t remember which one) doesn’t turn out the way its supposed to. We now know from Papa Johns that better ingredients means better tasting pizza, or better tasting anything for that matter. And the reverse is also true. Bad tasting ingredients make for bad tasting cake or corn-dogs. 

Figuring that the flour or sugar might have been spoiled, Thomas goes to his warehouse only to find his worst nightmare has come true. When opens the sack of flour, or sugar, or sack of whatever, he finds that it is instead a sack of just white plain stuff. It is not what he spent every last dime of his money on. He’s been tricked. This mystery con-man didn’t deliver the goods he promised.

Thomas’ desperate moment of truth was worth the price of admission. Well at least for me.

This is simply a wonderful portrayal of Satan’s deceptive work. Thomas, like his name-sake in the gospels, actually should have doubted this time. But like Adam and Eve, he got duped.

Sin is so often disguised as something profitable, that is worth the payout, worth the risk. And for a season it can deceive. But it never delivers. In the end, all we are left with is worthless ingredients that can’t even make a tasty corn-dog (and that’s saying something.) 

Sin promises the world, but in the end has nothing to offer. It dupes. It cheats us. It leaves us empty and disappointed and yet we come running back to the same place and say, “What else do you have that I can waste my money, time, life, and hurt my relationships with?” Pretty nuts.

But a more vivid picture of sin must lead to a more vivid picture of a Savior. Sin is this irrational, this stupid, this terrible, this wasteful. And yet we are told by another, “Come all who are weary and heavy laden, for my yoke is gentle and my burden is light.” That’s Jesus talking if you hadn’t heard that before.

Unfortunately for Thomas, he wasn’t broken and just went to back to “business” and schemed his way back into servant-hood. Let’s not waste our sin but come back to the one died for people who regularly get taken to the cleaners on bad “business” deals.

Gifted folks and doubters come to the same place

Yesterday I had the privilege of preaching on probably my favorite passage in the bible. If you want to listen to “Take these broken wings” (named after the Mister Mister song, not the Beattles song), here is the link. Mark 9:14-29 depicts a man deeply struggling to believe Jesus can and will heal his child. The kicker is that the man already gave the disciples a shot and it didn’t work. So cue the unbelief, plus the unbelief that may have already been present. The hope of the passage is that Jesus isn’t offended. He doesn’t run, shun, or gun him down. Instead he says to the father, “Bring the child to me.” And when the situation only gets worse with the demon making the kid squirm like a fish out of water, the doubt hits an all time high. Yet Jesus stays around, he doesn’t run, gun, or shun. The man prays to Jesus, “I believe, help m unbelief!” And immediately Jesus answers. How cool. I’ll never get tired of this passage. Ever. Because I feel like I always need it. 

One thing I couldn’t get into with the sermon based upon time was the curious answer as to why the disciples couldn’t cast out the demon. It’s the simplicity of the answer that is so confusing: “this kind can be driven out only by prayer.” So the big dog demons take prayer, while the other ones simply require the invocation of Jesus name? Did the disciples not pray? 

We’re not privy to all the information, and I read two different commentaries which in essence provided two different explanations. Here’s my take and its application today.

The disciples regularly cast out demons. Regularly. They were gifted at tossing out demons. They could have put that on a resume (I’m sure it would have been helpful for some job back then…..). But I think Jesus is telling them that giftedness is no substitute for completely dependent prayer. For complete dependence. Now He is not trying to get them to deny their giftedness-provided that they realize where the gifts come from-for that is false humility. Instead he is reminding them that giftedness alone will only get you so far. Your ultimate strength will never be found in your own gifts or abilities but in complete dependence upon the power of the Spirit. Zecheriah reminded Zerubbabel, “Not by might or power but my Spirit. (Zech 4:6) I think Jesus is doing the same thing here when he privately teaches the disciples. 

What I’ve come to really appreciate about this passage is the juxtaposition of unbelief and perhaps over-confidence. We take both our unbelief and our skills/gifts to Jesus in dependent prayer. Can you do something with our gifts? Jesus says yes. Can you do something with our lack of faith, doubt, and even lack of gifts? Jesus says yes.

Gifting gets you somewhere but there is always a cap. Even faith gets you only so far, as there is a cap on that too. Whether you feel like you have lots of faith or numbers of gifts, remember the source of both is Jesus. Don’t forget to come to him in dependent prayer. And even when you think its too late, remember, it is not. 

Only fumblers can speak to fumblers

Last year the NY Giants won the Super Bowl courtesy of a timely play or two, and a timely mishap from the Patriots that could have ended the game. Some folks may not remember why they were able to play upon such a stage. But certainly not Kyle Williams will never forget: his two fumbles provided the Giants the needed opportunities to overtake the San Francisco 49ers.

People don’t necessarily recover from such mishaps. Think of Ray Finkle from Ace Ventura. Mishaps on such a big stage can almost define a person’s career. Think of Bill Buckner who let a routine grounder go through his legs. Think of Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in the Super Bowl (also against the Giants). Sometimes it’s not just careers defined by one or two mishaps, but entire identities. 

Whether concerned about career or identity, two other famous fumblers (Earnest Byner and Roger Craig) took it upon themselves to go directly to Kyle Williams. Apparently the 49ers have been supportive, but supportive isn’t the only thing someone like this needs. I mean, the 49ers didn’t fumble the game away, Williams did. The 49ers didn’t deal with the personal feelings of worthlessness, experience personal threats, anger, and all of the other stuff that goes along with such a blunder. Only those who’ve had famous, or perhaps in-famous fumbles, can speak sympathetically to such famous fumblers. 

Fumblers can also speak more authoritatively to fumblers than non-fumblers. They have the existential knowledge that other non-fumblers just don’t have. 

Let me posit several lessons for the church:

1.) Only sinners can speak to sinners. If you speak of sin in the past tense, you have nothing to say to the struggling Christian (because you aren’t struggling yourself-and how could you not be  anyway?) nor do you have anything to say to the non-Christian. 

2.) Fumblers listen to other fumblers. Sinners will listen to other sinners, particularly those who are self proclaimed, self-titled sinners. 

3.) The church is full of people who have “blown it in a big game.” Maybe you’ve been a bad dad, bad parent, bad husband, bad kid, bad sport, bad _______. A pastor, parent, or friend can still speak authoritatively and point you to Christ and his forgiveness because God’s word is authoritative. But never underestimate the authority and influence of the existential/experiential perspective. Don’t let your mishaps (unfaithfulness, depression, anger, pornography, criminal record, background) drive you away from the church but toward Christ and other people. Fumblers listen best to other fumblers. I’ve fumbled games away and it hurts. I battle depression/anxiety and have dealt/still deal with different doubts. But I can speak more sympathetically and authoritatively now with people who struggle in those specific ways. In the end, I feel more than ever that fumbles can be incredibly redemptive, not only for myself but for my church community. I hope that will be the case with you too. We band of fumblers. 

Doubt belongs in the church

I regularly check the CNN’s belief blog and am almost always glad that I did. I came across this great article on doubt and how it belongs in the church, not outside of it. I hesitate to even summarize it, because it so well written. But the gist is that of a gal growing up as daughter of missionaries with a pile of discontent eventually erupting in her departing the church. Then returning with the doubt, but still returning nonetheless.
Listening to a sermon at my older brother’s church one Sunday, I stood up, leaned over to my father and said, “This is bulls**t.” I made my way to the end of the pew and marched out of the sanctuary. The sermon didn’t sit right with me. The pastor was preaching about Psalm 91, saying in so many words that a person just needed to pray and have faith in order to be protected from suffering.
I’ve had some folks walk out on my sermons before, but I don’t know elicited the same response. Of course, I don’t know that I didn’t! Fluff that isn’t true to the bible or to reality often will lead folks with similar feelings; they just may have enough self control to wait for the next wave and ride that one on in.
More than just that sermon, I was sick of church. I was sick, too, of all the spiritual questions plaguing me: Why does the church seem so culturally insulated and dysfunctional? Why does God seem distant and uninvolved? And most of all, why does God allow suffering?
I would imagine all of these questions have been entertained by all of us at some point or another. If not, we’re probably not being honest with a.) ourselves b.) our churches c.) our God. But these questions are more than doubts; I think they are questions of healthy discontentment.
Why does the church seem so culturally insulated?
I know I like to insulate myself from suffering. Then I don’t have to suffer and deal with the hard questions of “why does this stuff happen when I’m praying against it?” That’s not easy. And so we often choose the more comfortable route of fellowship. Instead of fellowshipping with the broken, we huddle together for the potluck supper. It’s more fun that way. One of the reasons there isn’t more doubt, or at the very least a healthy discontent, is that we insulate ourselves from suffering. Our lack of doubts isn’t necessarily an indication of a healthy faith, but an indication of the people we spend time with: the healthy and wealthy. That’s probably why suburbanites like myself don’t doubt as much. We’re insulated.
I found her challenge to me as a pastor and Christian very spot on. Instead of entering the mess, we run from it. And those who don’t run, those who are faithful to follow Jesus into suffering are sometimes left with this discontentment that leads to doubt. In other words, the doubt often comes to those who are faithful. 
She goes on to intimate why she left and why she returned.
In reality, I left the church more because of my own internal discontent than the lure of so-called secular life. When I came back, I still carried that same discontent. I was confused, and still bothered by questions and doubts. I stayed in the back row and didn’t sing or pray. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be there.
And yet I sat there, Sunday after Sunday, listening to the pastor and the organ pipes and trying to figure out what was going on in my dark, conflicted heart.
Although I never experienced that dramatic reconversion moment, I did come to peace with two slow-growing realizations.
First: My doubt belonged in church.
People who know my story ask what I would have changed about my spiritual journey. Nothing. I had to leave the church to find the church. And when I came back, the return wasn’t clean or conclusive. Since then, I’ve come to believe that my doubts belong inside the space of the sanctuary. My questions belong on the altar as my only offering to God.
With all its faults, I still associate the church with the pursuit of truth and justice, with community and shared humanity. It’s a place to ask the unanswerable questions and a place to be on sojourn. No other institution has given me what the church has: a space to search for God.
Second: My doubt is actually part of my faith.
In Mark 9:24, a man says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” The Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called this the foundation prayer of faith. I pray that prayer often and believe that God honors my honesty.
I also believe God honors my longing. The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said “Faith is homesickness.” C.S. Lewis called it “Sehnsucht,” a longing for a far-off country. I feel that sense of unshakable yearning. It comes from the deepest part of my heart, a spiritual desire that’s strangely, mysteriously connected to my doubt.
Sitting in church every Sunday, my doubt is my desire – to touch the untouchable, to possess the presence of God.

I love how she recognizes that doubt belongs inside the church, not outside of it. We all have varying levels of doubt. Fellowship and worship are two ways to counter that doubt, and in doing so, doubters may bring a healthy discontent to the non-doubter’s complacency. It’s a win-win.

A rare helpful Barna article

It’s not really any “news” that many younger folks leave the church during college years, but eventually come back when they have kids. Of course some don’t. Probably many, but I don’t know percentages. I could make one up that might be just as accurate if pressed…. 


Here’s a new article by the Barna Group. Normally those words make me cringe. Barna’s ecclesiology leaves something to be desired. Very desired. I heard an interview with him once where he said “I don’t go to church.” Not only that but the Barna Group’s research methods have been at times deemed questionable at best, according to some.  Nevertheless, I actually liked this article because it didn’t provide alarmist statistics to cause panic. 


Instead of yelling “fire,” this article discusses 6 reasons why young adults leave the church, and even includes some possible solutions to the problems. So even though percentages are thrown your way, they seem to take more of a back seat.


Again, you can read the article here. If you’ve gotten this far into this post, I don’t doubt that at all. So I’ll just comment on two of the reasons. And apologize for the weird formatting that follows-I tried 3-4 times to “pretty” it up. No luck. 


Exclusivity


One of the reasons include the exclusivity of the gospel message amidst a pluralistic culture. You can’t do a whole about that “problem.” Now you can not be arrogant and not demonize those who don’t love Jesus. That’s called loving your neighbor or your enemy. But you can’t include them as part of God’s family when John 1:12 tells us that those who believe in Jesus have been given the right to become children of God. Jesus gives that right. No one else does.


Unfriendly to Doubters 


Perhaps the reason that gave me most “hope” to work with was number 6.


Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).






Is the church really unfriendly to those who doubt? Well that depends upon the church. Certainly many are, and certainly many have ignored Jude’s warning (although most people probably ignore that book altogether) “have mercy upon those who doubt (vs 22).” 
Sometimes the problem lies with a perception of unfriendliness. It’s not that those who doubt (and we all do in some way) can’t ask the questions to those in the church. It’s often that those who have such questions, want to answer them isolation of the church. That way they can be objective with their struggles. But to go in isolation, and listen to voices outside the church (which are far from objective), or to try to discern what the bible “really says”by yourself outside the church, only increases your subjectivity. That’s a problem I see in young folk today. 
But on the other hand, do we offer times or promote a culture where kids in the church can really ask questions? Questions that we can affirm as legitimate questions? We’ve tried to do that with our youth here at Redeemer. In Sunday School, the Sr High are going through The Reason For God video series. In it, hard questions have been raised. I reminded the teacher to welcome such questions, and feel free to say, “I don’t know,” instead of cringing, freaking out, or being flustered at such (not that she was-she’s a great teacher). The youth are asking them to the church, in front of their friends in the church. Hopefully when they have faith crises in college, they’ll know the church can be a safe place to doubt.
We’ve also tried to make the church a safe place to doubt by doing a whole Jr High semester series on THEIR questions during our youth group time. I solicited the questions from THEM. Hopefully Redeemer, and whatever church they go to when they leave this place, will be safe. But just as importantly, I hope that they don’t ASSUME their next church isn’t. 
Finally, in the home, we can avoid such hard questions (and assume we know how our kids would answer), or we can welcome such questions. Or even raise ones we know are out there. But this is obviously hard, and it scares me to think about. I don’t want Connar to say, “Dad, I don’t think I believe in the bible.” But if he doesn’t have the freedom to express this doubt now, he will eventually live out those doubts like many (you don’t need a study to tell you that) who leave for college.