Mike’s Faith Journey PART III: Three Strikes, You’re Out.
ouldn’t it be nice if life just slowed down whenever some sort of crisis struck? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just take a break from everything else to *deal* with the crisis by itself, free from other distractions. Sometimes I wish this – but at other times, I think the fact that life just continues on despite my wishing it would stop is a helpful reminder that even though my world might feel upside down, the WORLD is going to keep on going full steam ahead, business as usual.
This can be painful – but also comforting in the same way that looking at the vastness of the ocean can be a reminder that while my problems might feel enormous to me, the ocean could swallow me and all my problems whole and the waves would just keep on crashing without missing a beat. Next to the ocean, everything – even my problems – seem small.
And so it was that in the midst of a massive crisis of faith and identity, life just kept on crashing ahead. During the course of those 2 or 3 years, my wife and I started dating, got engaged, and got married. I went on staff with YWAM for about 6 months, led a short term outreach to South Africa and Namibia, and finished a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. All the while wondering whether or not I really believed any of it.
In order to finish my degree in Bible, I had to complete a 40 hour internship. Luckily for me, my older brother was (and still is) the pastor of a church that was taking their youth group to a 3-day conference in Atlanta. A plan was hatched for me to join the youth group as a chaperone, and complete my 40 hours of internship in a single weekend.
At this point, I need to insert a word about the conference I was headed to. It was called Jesus Culture, and it was put on by a hyper-charismatic mega church in Redding, California which has been in the news recently for holding worship services and calling on Christians across the world to pray for the resurrection of a 2 year old girl who had died suddenly in her sleep.
The conference consisted of preaching, high-energy rock anthem worship services, and an emphasis on signs and wonders – especially supernatural healing. But did the 12 hour bus ride from Grand Rapids to Atlanta also count towards my 40 hour internship? You bet it did. For a guy who just needed to get some hours and check some boxes to finish his degree, this was a no-brainer. Best. Internship. Ever.
Alright God, this is it. One more unanswered prayer, one more bit of Scripture I can’t make sense of, one more worship service with Silence as my companion instead of You, and I’m done. I quit. I’m giving up. On faith, on the Bible, on You.
On the drive I had plenty of time to think. I remember going into that weekend feeling like I was at the end of my spiritual rope. I had this mental image of a ladder coming down from heaven with the last rung suspended in mid-air. And there I was, clinging to the bottom rung. Knuckles white, hanging on for dear life. Feet dangling. The vast emptiness of sky below me, into which I was terrified to fall. And from that precarious position, I remember thinking, Alright God, this is it. One more unanswered prayer, one more bit of Scripture I can’t make sense of, one more worship service with Silence as my companion instead of You, and I’m done. I quit. I’m giving up. On faith, on the Bible, on You. (Looking back, I recognize a certain amount of hubris in that statement – but it was an honest expression of how things were at the time. And I definitely meant it.)
But with my entire relationship with God riding on this weekend, I also remember thinking, Well, if this is my last shot at faith, I’m not going to half-ass this. I’m going to give God every opportunity to show up, to let me know I’m not alone, and to answer some of my questions.
And so, when one of the speakers received a word from God and declared from the stage that God wanted to heal people with diabetes that night, I stood up to receive prayer. The youth group crowded around and laid hands on me. Strangers gathered around and prayed fervent prayers for me. I opened my hands and lifted my arms to receive my healing from God.
Wanting desperately to believe, mustering up every ounce of faith I could, agreeing with the prayers offered by the man on stage and the believers who pressed in around me from all sides – and then checking my blood sugar every couple of hours after that to see if God had come through.
God hadn’t. Strike One.
People crowded around. Warm hands on my shoulders. Earnest, heartfelt, beautiful prayers of faith offered to the God who hears. Had God heard?
But, committed to giving God every chance I could, I stood up the next night too, when another speaker told us that God wanted to heal people with poor eyesight. Not blind people, he clarified, but people who need glasses or contacts – God wanted to give them 20/20 vision. God cares about the little things. God wants your eyes to be perfect. Alright, I thought. Let’s try this again. So, I stood up. I closed my eyes, took off my glasses, and lifted them into the air. And, opening a sweaty palm, I offered them to God. Here. I don’t want to need these anymore. If you want to fix my eyes, I receive your healing. People crowded around. Warm hands on my shoulders. Earnest, heartfelt, beautiful prayers of faith offered to the God who hears. Had God heard?
I opened my eyes.
The stage lights were a blur. Giant glowing starbursts of color. Hazy and out of focus. I shook my head, and mumbled something like “sorry… but thank you” to the folks who had gathered around. I polished my glasses and put them back on. Everything snapped into focus. I sank back into my chair. Strike two.
I woke up on the third and final day of the conference with a headache, sinus congestion and a sore throat that gradually worsened throughout the day. I had gotten sick while attending a conference about divine healing. Great.
I’ll admit that now, looking back, I have an appreciation for the delicious irony of getting sick at the healing conference. There is a part of me that finds that particular detail of my story deeply amusing in a non-cynical way. But at the time, this was essentially the final nail in the coffin of my faith.
Strike three, God. You’re out.
And so, dejected, I went into the final session of the conference. Still diabetic, still wearing glasses, two-fisting Tylenol and Sudafed to reduce my headache to a dull roar.
I’m sure of fewer things, but more sure of them than I ever have been.
And then things took an unexpected turn.
At some point during that session something shifted. I went in feeling miserable, unable to generate the very thing I desperately wanted – faith. As I sat in my chair in the middle of a long worship service, something started happening. I had a tangible sense of God’s presence, and of God’s reality in the world and in my life. It was as if God granted me the gift of faith – and suddenly I found that I believed. It was a profound kind of knowing that went beyond my mind and rooted itself deep in the soil of my heart.
I felt God’s love for me and for the world. I had a sense that everything was going to be ok – that I was ok. I had an experience of being fully known – all my perceived shortcomings, all my doubts and fears and frustrations at God – and unconditionally loved.
It was not at all as if God answered all my questions. In no way were my doubts “resolved” in the sense of being addressed in an intellectually satisfying way. Rather, all of my questions and doubts suddenly became insignificant against the backdrop of this overwhelming Presence. Because when you’re being wrapped in a heated blanked of divine love, it just doesn’t seem to matter if the Bible is inerrant or not. In those moments, I found a faith that no longer relied on finding neat and tidy answers to thorny theological issues. I had encountered a Mystery that resisted definition and explanation, but whose Reality I could not deny.
I came back from Atlanta a changed man. My wife will tell you, I was different. I had hope. Peace. Maybe even joy. I certainly had faith. And what a relief it was to have found it. Or for faith to have found me – which is what it actually felt like (even though that sounds too close to Calvinism for my comfort.)
Today, I still have more questions than answers, but the questions bother me less than they used to. I’m sure of fewer things, but more sure of them than I ever have been. And I’ve gotten a little braver in arriving at answers that would have been unacceptable to me 10 years ago.
I’ve found that when my faith is in a Mystery, it is a faith unthreatened by intellectual challenges. It’s unbothered by contradiction. It doesn’t need everything to make sense. It assumes that the full reality of the God who exists will not fit inside the confines of my brain.
Faith in Mystery is comfortable with paradox, uncertainty, unknowability. Faith in Mystery presupposes doubt. It’s open to supra-intellectual means of knowing and experiencing God. It’s flexible and open to religious diversity. It encourages exploration and theological imagination. And at the end of the day, this is the kind of faith that has (more or less) remained through the past decade of my life. And that’s gotta count for something, right?