July 13, 2020

Thoughts From The Empty Road (For Greg)

rdeGreg is a former student and good friend. I learned today that he has left the faith.

The last time I saw Greg (Not his real name), he looked like he was walking away from it all.

I had a premonition at the time that Greg was troubled. He looked unsettled. I’d heard he was thinking of leaving college. His talk of an art history degree last year in my AP English IV class was just the kind of parrot talk that bright kids learn to repeat. They usually don’t know what they are talking about, and Greg was just humoring irrelevant adults like myself.

What really captured him was the outdoors, exploring, and a new girlfriend who kept him on the road on weekends. School wasn’t putting any light in his eyes, but the fire was gone elsewhere as well.

The last time I saw Greg, the fire of his faith was burning low. I should have known where things were going. It’s all quite familiar now.

He wanted some books on philosophy. I gave him Somerset Maugham’s novel of a man who follows his own path, The Razor’s Edge.

I don’t know if he read it, but he found the path. Today I learned that Greg has left the faith in which he was raised.

I understand completely and I am devastated. My heart is broken.

I understand because I’ve watched him grow up in an environment where fundamentalist Christianity was the constant assumption. He not only traveled the road of Christian family and Baptist church, but also the path of Christian school, Christian academics, Christian sports and on and on. It was the water. He was the fish.

I remember his music. It was a place to mark out your own path, to not conform to the pressure of breathing Christian air. Classic rock. The sound of authenticity. He was tenacious in his love for it.

In class- I had him twice- he was bright, but unmotivated. Assignments came along late, always bearing the marks of last minute preparation. The bored, bright kid in the Christian school, where true individuality and creativity is measured out in manageable doses. What is important is that no one’s questions or struggles knock down the elaborate production we’re staging; that no one’s questions or struggles reveal just how shallow are the foundations of our heralded “grand” world view. So the student cooperates and all is presentable.

He meandered through my intro to Bible class, not the more challenging Advanced Bible. He could have taught the class.

He happened to be with us at the apex of our science department’s devotion to Answers in Genesis style creationism. He got the full treatment. What must it be like to be taken into this world where the teaching of science itself becomes an exercise in the deconstruction of science? God have mercy on the intellectually hungry, thirsty and curious.

He sat under my preaching for 6 years. Hundreds and hundreds of messages. Most of them, honest efforts to do the best I could. I want to think that I am speaking to the young people like Greg, the bright, curious ones looking for some sign of diversity in the clonish experience of evangelical fundamentalism. Instead, I must admit that I did not go deep enough to find Greg and his true heart. I stopped short.

I’m despondent feeling that I have failed. I may have done my best and my best is simply not good enough this time.

I take some cold comfort in this news.

Perhaps an inauthentic and empty posture toward God has been replaced with something genuine. I much prefer genuine unbelief to the pretense of faith. It is more healthy on the human level and more useful in God’s economy.

No one outruns the hound of heaven.

I can pray. And weep.

I can renounce this wretched cowardice that fears speaking up boldly on behalf of the spiritually starving and desperate who exist in the midst of any gathering of God’s people. I am paralyzed for fear that some creationist pastor will demand my head on a plate because I believe in God the Father, creator or heaven and earth, but I do not believe I am confessionally obligated to accept or reject any conclusion of science.

I’m afraid to describe the evangelical fundamentalism that I know, but instead choose to flatter the entire business so I won’t rouse the Pharisees.

I treat my classroom as a place to shadow box rather than as a place to speak plainly. I run like a frightened girl at one irritated fundamentalist, and look away from students I know will soon turn away altogether because people like myself keep our answers to ourselves.

It is too late for Greg. He is on to another place in his journey and I am not part of it. I have lessons to learn.

I have more students. More opportunities.

I have a place to repent and a place to risk telling the truth another day.

Comments

  1. Although I lack Michael’s eloquence, I wanted to share that I wrote about this post today:
    *******************
    To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity;to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth–Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.–Proverbs 1:2-7

    Over the past week or so, a confluence of factors has led me to think specifically about how I present Christ to my children. One of those factors was Michael Spencer, the i-monk. I once emailed Mr Spencer and told him that he was the blogger that I hate to love because although I don’t always agree with him, he often makes me think deeply about my faith. Over the past few days, he has done a series of posts on young earth creationism, atheism, and abandoning the faith. This post today prompted me to write. Briefly, his essay tells of a young man who walked away from the God of his youth because there was no freedom to think independently or creatively under the umbrella of fundamentalism.

    At times, when I read stories like this, I feel absolutely frozen inside. I believe there is no more important decision that my children can make than the decision for Christ, but how do I help them on that journey? Too much inflexibility and legalism can lead to rebellion. Too little guidance and structure can lead to a poorly calibrated moral compass. As I perch precariously along this narrow blade, I fear falling one way or the other, jeopardizing my children’s eternal future.

    As I think about these issues, I come to a place of wanting to teach my children to think for themselves from a Christian worldview by modeling that very thing in myself. I want them to see me deeply reflecting about issues in the world or in my faith and, through prayerful consideration and scriptural contemplation, coming to what I believe is a Biblical conclusion. When they approach me with questions, I want to provide guidance and wise counsel, but also encourage them to think through the questions for themselves with no hint of judgment in their process. If they arrive at a conclusion that is different from mine, I want to be able to ask myself whether their conclusion jeopardizes their salvation. If it does, I pray God gives me the words as I encourage them to seek Him. If it does not, I pray that I can demonstrate grace and parental pride in their ability to think for themselves.

    Above all, I pray that God grants me the wisdom and the courage to teach my children what is truly important–the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Discussions about how the earth was created, whether homosexuality is a sin, or whether Bono is actually a Christian are infinitesimally unimportant relative to the Good News. I also pray for freedom from anxiety about whether I am “doing it right” instead trusting that if God seeks my children, they will be found by Him. I desire for myself and my children to be overwhelmed by the grace of Christ, to love others, and seek God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

  2. The sad truth is that the church doesn’t embrace struggle. A whole article, in fact many articles, could written on that very point.

    • Spot on with this observation; but with God’s help, I think we can find ‘outposts’ where struggling is allowed and talked about. Maybe part of it is becoming a safe audience ourselves, where it’s known that struggling is OK. And then the word gets around , and GOD grows something slowly. In the meantime, church as usual sure seems weird, and somewhat torturous.

      God help us
      Greg R

  3. The post seems to be about the iMonk as it is about “Greg.” Thank you.

    It reminds me of a small group discussion we had recently on the topic of Doubt, which is not a topic you’d expect to discuss in an evangelical church like mine. Our pastor shared that when one of the young people leaves the faith, the elders beat themselves up wondering how they could have done a better job grounding them in the faith. However he realized that perhaps their role is not so much to supply the right answers but rather to provide young people with a safe place to ask questions.

    • Brilliant, Art. Such a post gives me hope. Asking the right questions is what critical thinking is all about and our churches and congregations need much more of it to remain vibrant.

  4. I made the decision to walk away from the faith just about a week ago. It had nothing to do with science or doubt or some other controversy. It had to do with the fact each church, each denomination, each group, has its expectations, what it believes it own should believe and how they should behave. After being pulled in a thousand directions, I soon discovered that I did not know what to believe.

    So I quit. I put my bibles back on the shelf and washed my hands of the “Christian” label and the expectations that come with it.

    Now, I find myself in a wilderness where there is only God and me and my search for who I am, devoid of the ideas of others. Perhaps when I find my own way, my own identity, I can return to the church, to the faith.

    I will always keep with me the love of God, love for my neighbor, and the name of Jesus.

    • Very courageous, MWPeak. You may think you are alone but we are legion. That first step is a doozy! Follow your heart but don’t forget to listen to your mind, too. It’s a fantastic combination.

      For a slight change of pace, may I suggest reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, a long interview with Bill Moyers that may offer you a bit of guidance on where to go from here.

      Very best wishes.

    • The gospel is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. But I see no reason to put your Bible on the shelf to embrace the simple gospel and leave behind the rest.

    • Carolyn Howard says

      Almost two years ago, I walked away from my CHURCH. I still have my faith, my Bible and my
      belief in God. In the service, I begin to judge the pastor, based on events that seem not to be in the best interest of the church or activities missing that would enhance the feeling of spirituality in the Church and obvious favortism. I was involved in the SHARE ministry and volunteered for
      other activies.

      I could not bring myself to ask the pastor of my church to pray for my premature grandson who never left the hospital. I did not feel comfortable with his laying hands on or praying for my Grandson who live for 5 and a-half months. I discussed my feeling with several ministers and told them how strongly I felt about this and how it really disturbed me. The family had another minister that we all trusted to bless our beloved child and he was baptised.

      The day I decided not to go back to the Church, I felt a sense of loss and grief. And it still nags at me. I’ve visited other churches and still have not found one to join. I looked inward and asked myself, “what is it that I want or need” to get back to church. I miss the fellowship and the singing but I don’t miss the sermon.

  5. MWPeak, there are others out here who have done as you have. Like you, I just cannot throw away those three. Not that I haven’t thought real hard about it.

  6. was Greg about 6 yrs ago but add a healthy dose of whiskey to the mix and you got me.

    I have often been struck by the idea that Jesus portrays our walk with God as a child to a loving father, and how most times, fundamentalists look at it more like a groveling worm to a vengeful and supreme tyrant. Certainly thru Jesus, the first metaphor is much more true, but it IS dependent on loving the Son. I don’t think that’s just the head knowledge “jesus died for my sins, if I believe it, blah blah blah” but the Genuine love that one would have for another who took a bullet for you.

    After a period away of losing faith in everything, I came to the realization that even though I wasn’t SURE of the authenticity, I was convinced that there was nothing out there in the world like the story of Jesus. Call me cynical but I’m just an observer of 21st century culture – and it’s all pure marketing and commercialism – no soul – the other religions are no different then Christian fundamentalism – obey or go to hell, and when one has lost hope, the threat of hell from anyone loses it’s spark.

    but Jesus….man, NO ONE has a story like him – I decided even if it weren’t true, it would be better then believing in any “truth” in the world today, so my walk started back with “Lord, I’m not sure it’s true anymore, but I WANT it to be true”

    Looking back, I think God sent me to that darkest place to re-evaluate and reset what we had. I had fallen into the Churchliness/Christian College vibe and there was no love there, just Fire Insurance. What I have now may not be as artifical, sparkly, or outwardly spiritual as what I used to put on, but it’s solid – tested – refined –

    I may still fall victim to despair and doubt, but I’ve explored all the other options and to quote a famous character in a novel, I’d rather have Christ without the truth then the truth without Christ.

    Perhaps it was time for Greg to go thru the same – perhaps he will surprise u again

    rb

    • RB, this is my story too. I eventually came to real faith through a process very, very similar. It was wonderful to hear someone else tell a story i thought i was alone in.

  7. Waltizing Matilda says

    What do you mean “he has left the faith?” Do you mean the SBC or has he thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water? Plus, he’s not dead, is he? While there’s life there’s hope.

    MWPeak – I’ve struggled with some of the same things you have, but in the end it came down to I believe Jesus. I don’t believe the Assembly of God. I don’t believe the SBC. I don’t completey believe the Friends, but I agree more with them than anyone else. So, I take into consideration what I hear these different theologians say and balance it with my own study of scripture and make my own conclusions.

  8. Micheal, I don’t want to come across as ornery. I love your spirit and appreciate your thoughts on this blog.

    I don’t know exactly what you preach and teach but the discussion about the baptism of the autistic child made me wonder and I think it relates to this. — How could there be a question of baptizing the person? Is it not a supreme joy to receive a “disabled” person? For such he came as well as children. In some sense, we are all disabled and immature. Receiving such a one just completely demonstrates the unlimited love and forgiveness of God and acceptance into the community of faith, consisting of the forgiven and constantly being forgiven, the weak, the bumbling, the hopeful, the hurt and hamstrung.

    How much pressure does there have to be to do and say the right thing before you know you “believe”, have made a conscious “decision”, are pious enough, strong enough, serious enough, anything at all enough. It is never enough. I believe, help my unbelief! No need to try or pretend.

    Baptism says to you that God wants you, not that you want God enough. We don’t need a psychological/intellectual pressure cooker. It does nothing in the end that we want. The Holy Spirit is alive and he works where he wills. We should ask him. Greg may need some fresh air and maybe to know that a little faith is faith, too.

  9. Michael

    this story, and many like it, also make me weep. It is the same in Australia, so often our young people go to University and lose their faith in the first year …. why?

    But then …. when I try to talk about God over coffee after church, the conversations turn to golf or other sports ….. when I try to get others interested in a bible study group, everyone is too busy …. or they would love to meet for “fellowship” (?)…..

    There is a distinct lack of passion for God Himself …. and it worries me. Because if our children cannot see that over-riding passion for God in our lives, a passion that affects everything we do (and don’t do) ….. then why should they think the faith is real?

    Christianity is Christ …. and is based on an encounter with the living God …. after that, all the other things are done either to know Him better (i.e. prayer, bible study etc) or as a matter of obedience (and it is in this that I place going to church).

    anyway, that is how I see it.

  10. “I treat my classroom as a place to shadow box rather than as a place to speak plainly. I run like a frightened girl at one irritated fundamentalist, and look away from students I know will soon turn away altogether because people like myself keep our answers to ourselves.”

    “What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. ” – Matthew 10:27-28

    Fight the good fight, Michael. What’s the worst that they can do to you?

    • Fire me and leave me without health insurance, a place to live and income 🙂

      • See, they won’t even stone you to death! They ain’t got nuthin’, man. 😉

      • Also:

        “And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment. Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls? And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest? Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith? And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind. For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

        Luke 12:22-34

        Whatever happens, it’ll be OK. Even if they actually do stone you. 🙂

  11. Michael;

    I am not surprised that “Greg” left the mostly empty forms of religion. I happen to agree that there is a vast difference between the actual relationship with Jesus and the pathetic attempts we have made in the flesh to keep the buzz going.
    Well, if you don’t have the Spirit you don’t have the buzz.
    We have to face the fact that although we may have become comfortable with the unholy alliance of flesh and scripture (that would be, reading it, and ignoring what it is plainly telling us), we cannot hide our glaring contradictions from a bright mind.

    Perhaps after a while he will sit down and read the Bible without some “approved authority” (Imprimatur?) looking over his shoulder.
    You know it is possible for a person to encounter the Lord outside the “Sacred Precincts”.

    Do not underestimate the power of the Good Shepherd to bring us nasty nonconformists (yes, I am one too) into the fold, that is His fold, if not yours. And probably not yours.
    So don’t worry Michael, you have grasped the understanding that you cannot force a person into a mold without their assent. I am sure that Greg appreciated your involvement with him and he might think of you as a good example.
    So like the seed which we must bury and forget lest we love it to death, just leave him alone and let him grow. Of course a good bit of prayer might be a good idea.

    Nathan

  12. I never leave this website sure if I should keep believing. “What is important is that no one’s questions or struggles knock down the elaborate production we’re staging; that no one’s questions or struggles reveal just how shallow are the foundations of our heralded “grand” world view. So the student cooperates and all is presentable.” So our faith is nothing but a shallow presentation? I understand we as Christians need to rethink the church thing, but seriously, would it kill you to give some encouragement to your readers sometimes.

    • Nate,

      I’ll overlook the “would it kill you” comment and making the rather obvious point that 8 years of comments and emails indicate plenty of people are encouraged by the honesty I try to model in my writing.

      The pretense of religious contentment is the great enemy of the Gospel. The Gospel overturns everything, starting with those things we are sure we’ve gotten right. (See the Rich Young Ruler for details.)

      Your comment indicates that it’s the job of the Christian writer to help people stifle their honest doubts and feelings and continue to fill their prayers with parroted pretense.

      God isn’t mocked and he isn’t fooled. He knows exactly what’s going on in my mind and heart, and writing cheerful apologetic posts propping up the rotting front of my religion won’t help.

      Jesus = salvation.

      The Gospel is Jesus.

      The church tells that story. It helps us be the prodigal, be the publican, be the lost sheep.

      If you want a web stop to help us all be older brothers and Christians who don’t need the Gospel, I won’t be cooperating.

      There is plenty of encouragement on this site, but it comes from honest admission that we all can pray “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Do you really think I need to TELL you to believe? Good grief. God is real or he isn’t. I’m not going to help you or anyone else pretend.

      I believe God is real, Jesus is alive and the Gospel is for Christians too,

      That I believe it can’t make you believe it. That the church sucks much of the time isn’t my fault. I simply won’t cooperate with the press releases announcing that all is well.

      ms

      • Ok, I understand that you were sharing something personal and I should not have started my post the way I did and I am sorry for that.
        I don’t want the Christian writer to, “help people stifle their honest doubts and feelings”. However, I am looking for somewhere to find hope in the face of my doubts. I get that I am worthless and need Christ. I get that. If God is so real then why doesn’t he respond. Why can I not believe when I really want to. I have prayed, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” But all I get is crickets. Where is God in that? It seems all I have is pretend.

        • Nate, I want you to know that I (at least I think) I share your frustration (which is not focused on Michael or his blog here). I also share your doubt as to where God is at the moment… any moment. For me, the bible and the church have been little help.

          While I agree with Michael that you cannot demand that God “show up”, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to beg the question, “Where is God, then?”, when you’ve done all you have ever been told to do and he still hasn’t shown up as promised.

          I can’t give you hope or erase your doubts. But… Do you have a good relationship with your parents? Do you have kids? Do you like sunsets? Is there anything in life you enjoy? Are there any people in your life who care about you? If so, even in little tiny bits, then God is there. If there is anything that softens your heart in this world, it’s my belief God is behind it, somehow.

          Michael is right… you need a real person looking at you to discuss this. I also know that may be hard to find–it has been for me. Sometimes these blogs are all we have.

      • You’re voicing one of the primary reasons that we all can’t demand a subjective experience of God whenever we want. We need a community that will carry us through times of not experiencing God and help us learn to perceive God in Word and Sacarament, in the poor and in creation.

        You have to realize that when your approach is front loaded to demand God “show up” your fallen critical faculties will make you doubt anything. There is NO situation in the Bible – from the parting of the Red Sea to the ressurection- that goes beyond the human capacity to doubt. You can’t demand that simply go away because you demand God remove your doubts.

        We’re not worthless. That’s a terrible way to understand the Gospel. I hope you aren’t in a church that encourages that kind of self-evaluation. I have no idea what you are struggling with in your life that produces that feeling, but the Gospel is good news of being loved by God and enjoying that love, not of learning to grovel and hate ourselves. You certainly never heard that here.

        Find a community that will feed your faith in Christ by way of Word and Sacrament, not subjective experience. Remember that we are human, not angels, and the walk is by faith, not by sight or feeling.

        And find a real person to talk to 🙂 I’m not adequate for the task.

  13. Hey Nate;

    I know it may sound trite, but when we approach the Lord by thinking or saying “what have you done for me lately (like show up)” we carry a chip on our shoulder, which impedes our hearing Him. As Michael said “your fallen critical faculties will make you doubt anything.”

    I have experienced that, it was only when I set aside what I thought I knew, because after all, I really don’t know anything. And I said, “Lord I give up, I need to listen to You and quit relying on my own ‘genius’,” that I was able to hear Him and discover that He cares for me as much as I hoped He did.

    This is a hard thing these days, because we are taught that we can’t hear Him. If you don’t believe that, try telling the next ten people you meet on the street that you hear God and see how that goes.

    Anyway I’m not sure that community, is the answer in this case, if the faith communities around you cannot hear God.
    People who can’t hear God, will only give you pat answers, or blank stares, if you express your doubts about His showing up. And they won’t encourage you to pursue something which they do not believe is possible.

    The answer is in scripture, communication with the Lord is always prefaced by humbling one’s self. That is, acknowledging the reality of His pre-eminence, and then acknowledging your minuteness, your dependence upon Him. It is the ultimate reality check.

    Is this the same as being worthless? No not at all, If Jesus thought it worthwhile to die for you, then how could you be worthless, you are priceless.
    Your worth is based on His evaluation not yours.

    Nathan

  14. Interesting post, for sure. I know that my faith took a huge hit after working in an environment which had only church people, as opposed to former jobs in the secular world. Never again. I’m still trying to regain my footing months later.

  15. Donald Todd says

    We see people who make choices we would not have made. We observe human calamaties, some arriving from the inside, and others from the outside. We hurt for the innocent and wonder what we might have done to bring about a different outcome.

    We see people arrive that we would not have expected to see. We hear about results that should not have happened. We rejoice at the wonder of it all.

    There are questions that might never be answered to us in this world or the next. There are hopes that might not be met in this world, and won’t be part of the equation in the next. Greg appears to be gone. I was gifted with faith several decades ago. Why Greg? Why me? I’ve asked questions that I haven’t recognized an answer for, but recognized that I have had other questions answered.

    The Jews prayed for a long time, seeking freedom from their slavery in Egypt. Eventually their prayers were answered.

    Augustine’s mother Monica prayed for him for 30 years, even to tears, and eventually her prayers were answered.

    Perhaps someone will do the same for Greg.

  16. God: My road has been so empty as well, Help me to find you as I travel on.

    God I pray that you will help me to handle my harvest! I know that much of what I am now reaping is from what I have sown in the past and it is a harvest that I must do something with. There are people you love that I must deal with in Godly ways. Help me lord to hear from you hour by hour with the wisdom of what I must say / do to make this harvest work to your Glory. I want to continue sowing and seeing what a new and better crop can be grown for your glory. Give me strength God

    Paul said: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal. 6:7-9).

  17. Cole Matson says

    I am one of many who have left Protestantism for Catholicism. My sister is one of many who have left Christianity for unbelief. Both of us were raised among (though not as) fundamentalists. I don’t think that had much to do with my departure. I know it had something to do with my sister’s.

    I’ll pray for Greg and for you. If you wouldn’t mind, please say a prayer for my sister as well.

    It definitely hurts. All we can do is trust the Hound.