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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Losing Faith: The Best Thing that Could Have Happened to Me

Going to College

When I left high school, I was a leader in my church youth group. I had brought people to youth group with me. Our youth group leader had led some of them to Christ, and I was confident in my faith.

I arrived at college a couple of weeks early to try out for the soccer team, so the place was pretty much deserted. Parties were held every night, but alcohol wasn't appealing to me, so I spent a lot of time alone.

Current research out of the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that the first two weeks of college are crucial for students. Most students will fall into some temptation or other, but how they deal with it, who they talk to about it and how much they dwell on it can set the tone for the rest of their time away from home.

After classes started for real, I wanted to make some friends, but I felt completely out of my element. So I decided to go out partying with a friend from high school. I still didn't drink, but I didn't know what else to do, so I went along and became the designated driver.

One time, there were eight or nine of us heading to a party. So, my friend from high school hopped in the trunk and rode to the party.

That was the most memorable thing that happened that night. The party was boring. I played quarters, a drinking game, but I drank shots of Sprite. It was stupid. The atmosphere was bizarre and kind of surreal. I felt totally out of place and had no desire to do what it took to feel "in place".

At the next party, I found myself wandering around on the street outside a frat house. They had supposedly spiked the punch with pure grain alcohol that wouldn't leave any alcohol taste. They had two flavors and kept serving my friends grape instead of cherry. They figured that the alcohol was only being served to the frat guys and the girls because none of my friends were getting drunk. So, I offered to get a cup, assuming that I could taste the alcohol or more quickly feel the effects of it since I was a non-drinker.

I couldn't taste anything and didn't feel a buzz. I told them they were probably being pranked and went outside to walk around.

I found another non-drinker, Antoine, who was also looking to make friends.

We ate some donuts, began talking and stopped going to parties.We had found what we were looking for. We made another friend, Pete and eventually we all became suite mates.

Pete and I found a church and joined a couple of Christian clubs on campus. I felt confident that I had survived the transition to college without losing my faith.

House of Faith

I like to use the analogy of a house when I talk about faith. It takes time to build. We each build our homes differently based on lots of variables from life experience to personality to circumstances.

And a house has three important aspects: the foundation, the structure and the décor.

I was sure that I had a firm foundation. Unfortunately, I was inexperienced and had little understanding of my faith. So, I began to build out instead of up.
Like an untrained builder, I was building my house away from the foundation. It hung off the edges and was supported by my intellect, personality, wit and logic. I was trusting in the wrong things. I was trusting largely in myself and my ability to understand and interpret the teaching of others. I became the judge of what was right and wrong.

(I looked for a picture on the internet of a house built hanging out away from a solid foundation, but there aren't any. I guess that's because no one does that. Here's one interesting picture I found, though.)

bed, dreams house, hanging house, nature, open house

I could explain my points and “win” some arguments.

Then I had the talk (which I mentioned in an earlier blog, click here) with my father, an ongoing conversation that lasted for a whole summer.

That conversation shook my house of faith. It washed away all of the things that had no foundation and damaged the structural integrity of those things that did. I wasn’t sure what I could trust, what was real.

I learned to trust my intellect from my Dad. And my intellect and his intellect led us to different places.

I felt paralyzed by fear. I was afraid to think that I had been wrong. I was afraid to think that I had wasted so much of my life and energy on lies.

In time, I discovered that my foundation was unshaken, undamaged. I still believed in Christ. I still had a relationship with Christ. And, that was the realization I needed in order to have the courage to keep going. I tore down the rest of the house and started over.

I began to rebuild my house of faith. I read the Bible through from beginning to end. I started paying closer attention to what I was being taught. I checked things with Scripture. I had not learned the difference between exegesis, drawing conclusions out from the Scripture, and eisegesis, reading one’s ideas into the Bible, (e.g. drawing conclusions and then finding Scripture to support it). So, I still was making lots of assumptions, but I was sticking closer to my foundational beliefs.

Losing Faith, Again

So, my second house of faith was more carefully built.

In seminary, post-graduate training for a life as a pastor, I found myself in another storm. Even after what I had been through the first time, I wasn't ready for this.

I knew that my professors were incredibly intelligent. I believed that they loved Christ. And yet, they were telling me that many of the things I had been taught in church and Sunday School were untrue.

They taught me to study the Bible as literature. They taught me new ways of understanding the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. They taught me to question everything that I had learned up to that point.

I realized that so much of what I believed was based on other people’s opinions and interpretations of the Scripture rather than a prayerful, careful study of them. In seminary, I learned that there are many different ways to interpret the Bible and each way was inadequate to grasp the richness and wonder and glory of God.

They taught me to stop striving for the right answers and start striving for honest answers.

I learned to say, "That's not really clear from Scripture. There are different views on that. My best understanding is..."

God is an Ocean

To use a different analogy, as a teen, I was taught about the ocean, that is God, and thought that I had grasped it. I was taught about its vastness and its power. I was taught how to understand it.

After my conversation with my Dad, I began to visit the ocean, to feel the breezes, smell the salt filled air, and put my feet in the wet sand. I met artists on the beach painting seascapes and eventually I even started trying to capture it for myself.

In seminary, I learned to swim. I gave up the hope of ever capturing the ocean with my ideas or pictures, and I embraced its greatness and enjoyed exploring its beauty. I let it wash over me and envelop me.

The ocean is powerful. Most days, I stay close to the shore afraid of what the deep waters might bring. But, some days I feel brave, I trust God a little more, and I lose sight of the land for a little while. I like those days... when all there is is God. (Writing about it now is making me long for it. I need to plan my next trip.)

Katie frolicking in Washington, on the Pacific Coast

So, with the help of my professors, I tore down my house of faith again. This time, I knew the foundation was good. I even kept some of the weight bearing walls. My relationship with Christ was strong. It had stood the test of time.

And, then, over three years, they taught me how to build. I was free to build and shape my house however I wanted. Each paper I wrote, each discussion in class, and each personal encounter about some theological concept or practical ministry decision was an opportunity for them to show me the strength and weakness of my construction.

They taught me to know the limitations of my understanding and my theology, to hold my ideas with humility and grace. They helped me to see how my personality, experiences, and upbringing led me to certain beliefs. Others with different backgrounds were led in other ways.

My way wasn’t the right way and the other way wrong. Each had its strengths and weaknesses. Each was incomplete. But, they both provided shelter, security and a way to understand the world around us.

After having my house torn down twice already, I was afraid to build anything. They helped me get over my fear of saying, “I believe…” this or that. To begin construction again. But, they also helped me to engage with other beliefs without fear of losing my own faith.

After 21 years in ministry, my house of faith is still standing on the rock, the true foundation, Jesus Christ. I have moved some walls and definitely changed the décor, but

my faith is secure.

I appreciate the shelter that it provides, trusting God to hold me even if the walls fall again.

Our God is faithful. He will carry us through every trial. He only tears down our faith so that he can rebuild it again, stronger.

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