Monday, August 27, 2007

Room for Doubt: The Faith Crises of Bill Lobdell, Mother Teresa, and Holly

Belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of
faith. Either you have the gift of faith
or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't
be willed into existence. And there's
no faking it if you're honest about
the state of your soul."

--William Lobdell, religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, in a column he wrote last month. Lobdell wrote about the hypocrisy he’s witnessed within the church—including the handling of cases against Catholic priests who’ve been accused of molestation—and how it has caused him to lose his faith.

Holly sez:
My faith life's had its up and downs. At its worst, I checked out of the Christian church in my late teens because all I saw there was hypocrisy, arrogance, and superiority. It seemed if these were the people who followed Jesus, either they were very wrong, or Jesus was a fraud. Shortly after college, I read an article in a reputable news magazine stating the historical Jesus was nothing like the man recorded in the Bible. It seemed to confirm both of my suspicions about Jesus and his followers.

Had I been older, I would have known those scholarly attacks on Christ’s character and legitimacy come around every few years, are quickly disproven and disappear. (A recent example was the discovery of the so-called "lost tomb of Jesus.") Had I been wiser, I would have realized my observations of hypocrisy, arrogance, and superiority were actually about my own life! I thought I was better than others, and I didn’t feel love or compassion for anyone. Yet somewhere deep inside, I wanted a real relationship with God, one that would change my attitudes. Rather than saying, “OK, God, I’m messed up and I want to let you fix me,” my immature mind decided the church had corrupted me with its bad environment. I spent nearly a decade feeling angry toward the Christian church, and wasted all that time trying to find an alternate way to know God.

My crisis of faith seems mild in comparison to Bill Lobdell’s, the L.A. Times writer quoted above. I merely needed to grow up. Lobdell is a grown, thinking man who’s been knee-deep in true church hypocrisy. Inside the church, he witnessed greed, false teaching, and a complete lack of justice for church members who were violated by church leaders.

There are plenty of ways to downplay Bill's experience, to say, “Well, we live in a fallen world,” or “Bill, you can’t judge the goodness of God by the actions of sinful humans” or "We can't understand the mysteries of God's infinite wisdom" or "Bill's just got to trust God." But if you've ever experienced doubt, you know none of those simple statements rebuilds faith—in fact, that oversimplification can cause a person to think faith is one big farce.

Perhaps we minimize other's doubt because we're afraid of confronting doubt in our own lives. Bill's story awakened questions in my mind. If I were in Bill's shoes, I would wonder, How could a loving God allow such atrocities—within his church! Didn't he care about those children who were molested, and the infirmed who were exploited by phony "faith healers"? How could a just God not provide justice to those who’ve been victimized by leaders of his church? This isn’t a “if God is good, why do bad things happen” question. This is a “if God is real, wouldn’t he care about the actions of his representatives here on earth” paradox.

That's only my guess of what’s going through Bill's mind. I can say honestly that if this were my crisis of faith, I'd likely give up on my Christian faith, too.

That’s because I sometimes feel Christians are expected to have profound, unrelenting faith. I emailed Bill and told him as much. Perhaps, as this verse suggests, such faith isn't available to most:

"A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have" (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, NLT, emphasis mine).

(Some other versions of that Scripture—NIV, King James, NASB—don't even use the word "great" to qualify faith: "... to another faith by the same Spirit" (NIV). The Message version says, "simple faith.")

In my email to Bill, I tried to share some observations about my own faith:


Faith doesn't seem to be my spiritual gift. It's logical to me that a God who gives and takes life could heal, too. But I've never had faith God would heal a person. If "faith" is defined as "belief that is not based on proof," I'm not even sure my belief in the Resurrection is about faith. My belief in the Resurrection came only after reading such apologetics writers as Lee Strobel and C.S. Lewis. Arguments, such as those in The Case for Christ, seemed plausible, so I started to believe that God and Jesus were possibilities. But it was observing the faith of others that made God real to me.

For me, faith has been like a life-long science project: I've researched, hypothesized, experimented, and observed. A scientist friend told me basics such as Newton's first law can't be mathematically proven; it's technically a theory. Yet we accept it as fact because humans have observed it in action for more than 300 years. Similarly, my friend believes, we can observe faith and thus strengthen our acceptance of the theory that God exists.

I'm praying God will put a person in your life who has the gift of faith.

I've been praying for Bill for several weeks now. And praying for myself, too, because writing those words to him made me feel pretty disgusting. How could I admit to a lack of faith? I almost wanted to call up the evangelical Christian publications I write for and tell them, “I shouldn’t be working for you because I lack the definition of faith I believe Christians are supposed to have.”

This led to a minor crisis of my own faith. I wondered, Do I have any real faith at all? Using, I looked up every single Scripture that included the word “faith.” Some discussed a lack of faith, others the rarity of great faith, and some spoke of weak faith. But I couldn’t find anything indicating there were people who didn’t have any faith whatsoever--at least, not in the sense that someone could be devoid of the potential to believe in God. (Bible scholars, please correct me if I'm wrong.) Rather, faithlessness seems to describe the choice to not serve God or to be opposed to God.

It seems there must be a nearly universal faith in God, or at least in a higher power or something greater than humanity. Even most self-proclaimed atheists seem to indicate they can’t know for certain there isn’t a God. Maybe that hint of doubt could otherwise be defined as "the prospect of faith in God."

Even if we all have some amount of faith, is the little we have enough? I got to thinking, Maybe my measure of faith doesn't qualify me to talk to you readers about God. Maybe Christian leaders—including writers—aren’t allowed to have a crisis of faith. Is doubt a sign I don't have enough faith? Is it wrong to doubt?

That’s how my mind gets going sometimes when doubt creeps in. So it was a gift from above when I received a press release about Mother Teresa’s “crises of faith” last week. Mother Teresa had written private letters to church leaders about her faith struggles. These will be included in a book coming out next month. Her thoughts both shocked and encouraged me, including these:

"Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. … It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.' " –written in 1953

"Such deep longing for God—and ... repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no
zeal. (Saving) souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing—pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything." -- 1956

"If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true." --1959

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear." –1979

Mother Teresa had asked the Catholic church to destroy these letters upon her death. Perhaps she felt her crises of faith would have shaken or destroyed the faith of others. For me, these letters provide encouragement: Even the devout have moments of deep doubt. Perhaps, like I mentioned before, doubt is simply a way to describe the potential for faith.

But Mother Teresa isn't the only doubting person of faith on file. Flip your Bible open to just about any story, and you'll see faithful followers doubting the power of God. This includes those who have seen God at work. Even after observing miracles and hearing Christ's words, the disciples still lacked faith. Case in point: The disciples were in a boat with Jesus when a storm kicked up. Jesus calms the storm, yet even after he does this, his disciples are still afraid!

Maybe Bill Lobdell has some amount of faith in God left, which is presently being expressed as doubt. I will continue to pray for him, and I hope you do, too. Maybe we all need to have a crisis of faith every once in awhile, if only that God would make our faith stronger:

"Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way" (James 1:2-4, The Message).

To ponder:
1) Have you ever had a crisis of faith? What caused it?

2) If your crisis of faith was resolved, how did you come to resolution? How did those moments of doubt affect your relationship with God? If you are presently experiencing doubts, how has that doubt affected your relationship with God?

3) Is it OK for a Christian to have doubts?
Is it difficult to admit when you have doubts about your faith? If so, what makes this so hard?

4) Do you believe everyone has some amount of faith? Or do you think some don't have any faith whatsoever? What led you to this conclusion?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?

Holly's latest blog entry on Today's Christian Woman magazine's website is now up:

Can a Diverse Church Be Unified?
To be healthy as a body, we need to start making The Other feel like The Every.

Check it out, then come back to H-n-T and think about the following questions. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

To ponder:
1) Do you believe racial insensitivity happens within the Christian community?

2) When you've seen hurts occur, who was blamed? Was it the person who was hurt ("You're too sensitive") or the person who caused the hurt ("Why can't you be more sensitive?")?

3) Has anyone ever said something hurtful to you, then apologized by saying, "I didn't know that would hurt you"? If so, did you explain why you were hurt? Or, have you said something to another person, not realizing it was hurtful to them? If so, did they explain why they were hurt?

4) Is it easy or difficult for you to explain when you've been hurt?

5) What can we do to prevent hurts from occurring within the Christian community?
6) Describe how you see the church's role in racial reconciliation.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Are Today's Sermons Too Light on Sin and Hell?

The following was released by an international Christian news service:

Many Churches Preach "Gospel Light"
By Wolfgang Polzer
Special to ASSIST News Service

Conversion sermons have become like undesirable children, whom no one wants to play with, according to a German evangelical theologian.

Professor Christoph Stenschke teaches New Testament studies at Wiedenest Bible School, a theological training college connected with Brethren churches in Germany. In an article published by the Baptist journal "Die Gemeinde" he recalls the old days, when pastors and evangelists preached fervent sermons of repentance.

Today this call had been replaced in many churches by an invitation "to make friends with Jesus." Many find it hard to talk about sin, hell, the need for conversion and the ensuing joy in Jesus.

The response to an attractive Gospel message is poor and short-lived, however, as many churches are finding out. Stenschke: "There is precious little trace of a life-long, life-changing discipleship and enthusiastic commitment."

The German Baptist Union, with which some Brethren congregations are associated, is the biggest evangelical church in Germany with 85,000 members. It has not experienced any significant growth for years. Stenschke: "The dry season in some baptisteries has been lasting for a long time."

According to the theologian the impression cannot easily be dismissed that this is in some way connected with a lack of clear calls for conversion. These could not be issued if there was a notion that "people are somehow right with God already and will go to heaven anyway."

But in reality all persons are under the rule of sin, writes Stenschke. Without turning to Jesus Christ in faith they will have to face God's judgment of wrath.

According to Stenschke even evangelical Christians have embraced a postmodern "light" version of the Gospel. He admits that a call to repentance and conversion would not be received with open arms. It would indeed face resistance but also lead to sustainable conversions.

To ponder:
1) Do you believe American churches are preaching "gospel light"? Why or why not?

2) Have churches traded off between emphasizing God's love and God's wrath? Is it wrong, in your opinion, to emphasize one over the other?

3) Do Americans seem to be more drawn by a message of love, or a message of sin?

4) What should today's message from Christian churches be?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Church Cancels Memorial for Gay Man

Even though we could not condone that lifestyle, we went above and beyond for the family through many acts of love and kindness."

--Rev. Gary Simons, pastor of High Point Church in Arlington, Texas, about the cancellation of a memorial for Cecil Howard Sinclair just 24 hours before the service. Simons says he was unaware Sinclair was gay until the day before the service, when church staff saw photos of men embracing and kissing which were submitted for a video tribute. Simons says he cancelled the service because he didn't want the church to appear to condone homosexuality. Simons says the church offered to pay for another site for the service, and they created the video tribute and provided food for the memorial. Sinclair was not a member of the church; a family member said the church had offered to hold the service because Sinclair's brother is a janitor for High Point.

Full story:
Church Cancels Memorial for Gay Navy Vet

To ponder:
1) Should High Point Church have hosted the service? If this was your call, what would you have done?

2) If High Point had held the service, do you think it would have appeared to condone homosexuality?

3) Does it make a difference that Sinclair wasn't a church member?

4) Do you think churches should be obligated to hold special services, such as marriage nuptials and memorial services, for anyone who requests them?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Is This a Hoax?

I recently wrote about Hattie May Wiatt, a little girl from the 1800s whose gift of 57 cents inspired the building of a large church, a hospital, and a university. Someone had emailed Hattie's story to me, and when I read it, I assumed it was a hoax. Amazingly to me--except for a few details apparently added to make the story sound flashier--Hattie's story is true.

Sadly, there are a lot of hoaxes on the Internet that were created to get Christians hot under the collar. An evangelical publication recently fell for one of them, printing a story that Pepsi had designed a soda can with most of the Pledge of Allegiance written on it, minus the words "under God." The publication printed a retraction.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time a hoax was printed by a reputable source. There was widespread concern a few years back that Harry Potter books had caused an increase in Satanism. Several publications wrote stories about it, then found out this rumor started from a parody piece in The Onion, a satirical newspaper.

The Evangelical Press Association sent me a list of tips for journalists on how to check the validity of a story. I think the following are great tips for any reader. Before you forward that shocking email about a scandal that could rock the church, try this:


1) If the story sounds "too good to be true," it probably is. Be skeptical and required proof.

2) Check with popular urban legend Web sites to see if your story has already been investigated and proven false. Here are two good sites:

If nothing is listed on those sites, next you can:

3) Do your own reporting and find independent verification of the story. In the case of the Pepsi story, a sample of the Pepsi can in question would have been a good piece of evidence. (Hint: a second copy of the same bogus email promoting the story doesn't count as independent verification.)

4) Make a solid effort to contact the supposedly guilty party. In this case, a member of Pepsi's army of PR folks would probably have been happy to set the record straight. Most big companies are happy to head off negative publicity before it's printed.


This is something anyone can--and should--do before forwarding an email of concern. Most manufacturers and organizations have online comment forms where you can instantly send your questions and concerns. It's much better to wait a few days to get verification than to forward an email and get a ton of angry replies from your friends saying, "This is just an urban legend!" Or worse, you might freak someone out over a hoax.

Nearly a decade ago, a well-intentioned friend sent me an email warning that AIDS-infected blood was being injected into people at movie theaters while they viewed the film. For years, I felt stressed out every time I'd go to a cinema. I was thrilled to find says, "
It just aint so."

In an age when news travels as fast as the click of the "Send" button, everyone is like a journalist. You may not have the reputation or audience of Barbara Walters, but you do have the deep trust of your family and friends.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I'm (Not) Always Right

"On the contrary, in the devil’s theology, the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong. This does not exactly make for peace and unity among men, because it means that everyone wants to be absolutely right himself or to attach himself to another who is absolutely right. And in order to prove their rightness they have to punish and eliminate those who are wrong, in turn, convinced that they are right … "

--From Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation

A friend sent me the above quote this week. It reminded me of an incident in high school, which I wrote about for Campus Life magazine some years ago. For your amusement, here's a bit of the story I wrote:

In high school, I was always right. At least, that's how I saw myself. I was a good debater, and I loved to argue. I'd pick verbal fights with other students, with teachers and my parents. I even started a debate club at my high school just so I could participate in organized arguments. It never mattered what the topic was, or whether I was arguing for or against something. I just wanted to be right. I just wanted to win.

Mr. Tennant wanted to teach me a lesson. He taught government, which was my favorite class because we spent most of the time debating. Each week, he'd assign a debate topic to two students. Each week, I'd volunteer to debate. And every time I got to debate, I'd win.

One week, Mr. Tennant didn't ask for volunteers. "Holly and Tom, you're up. You'll debate on the right to free speech. Tom, you'll speak in favor of free speech. Holly, you're con."

As we began to debate, it quickly became clear that my arguments sounded way better than Tom's. Sounded. I knew I was twisting the truth and saying things that were just plain wrong. But what did it matter? My classmates were nodding their heads in agreement with me. I was going to win!

Then suddenly, Mr. Tennant stopped the debate. He proceeded to tell the class how wrong I was. I was furious. After class, I stomped up to Mr. Tennant's desk. "Why did you stop me? I should have won! I deserved to win!"

My teacher looked me in the eye and said something I'll never forget: "Yes, you did deserve to win, Holly. But I needed to show you there's a difference between convincing others you're right, and speaking the truth. You have a big voice. The question is: How are you going to use that voice?"

As I listened to his words, I felt a flood of mixed emotions. I still felt cheated of my victory. And it still seemed terribly unfair at that moment. But I knew my teacher was "speaking the truth."

I've been thinking about Thomas Merton's quote and my experience in that high-school classroom debate. These days, I don't concern myself with being absolutely right. I've come to realize there's a lot I don't know, much I haven't personally experienced, and some things I'll never understand. That realization has a fear attached: What if I'm absolutely wrong?

It's a pretty big fear, especially when people tell me they expect me to be right. As a journalist, I've long been expected to know a lot about current events and to fully check the accuracy of my sources, data, and quotes. As a Christian who writes about the church, there are expectations that I should write honestly and critically, as well as with a gentleness that reflects God's love. I think my fears about writing are a microcosm of what every Christian experiences in living a Christ-centered life: How can I explain my faith to my friends without appearing superior or hypocritical? What if I misquote the Bible or get the context of a verse wrong? Does God want me to speak out, or does he want me to keep my trap shut?

And, as we've all experienced, when we share our thoughts, opinions and critiques about anything, there will always be plenty of people who don't agree. That fear has stopped me from sharing my faith a few times. I feel that fear creeping up almost every time I write on this blog.

Wonderfully enough, my friend also sent me this quote from Thomas Merton:

"If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn. ... If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men--you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead."

Together, these two quotes provide me with a couple simple truths: 1) God can use my voice, but only if 2) I can keep focused on him--not on myself or other people.

Please pray for me this week as I'm reflecting on Paul's words to Timothy:

"So I ask you to make full use of the gift that God gave you when I placed my hands on you. Use it well. God's Spirit doesn't make cowards out of us. The Spirit gives us power, love, and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:6-7, CEV).

To ponder:
1) Do you struggle with wanting to be absolutely right? Is it difficult to listen to other people's thoughts and opinions? Do you sometimes stop friends and family members before you've heard them out?

2) Do you often fear you're absolutely wrong? Do you sometimes tell people you agree with them just to avoid conflict? Are you afraid to share your beliefs due to this fear?