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Trading Rumors of God for a Firsthand Faith
By GLENN PACKIAM
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Glenn Packiam
All rights reserved.
Life couldn't have been any better. We had been in our new house for just over a year, and it was almost time to start decorating for the holidays. Winter's frost was just blowing in over the Rocky Mountains. These were days of sipping hot chocolate and looking back over a year of steady church growth, rapidly expanding influence, and a company of close friends to enjoy it with. On top of all that, my wife, Holly, and I were expecting our second child, another girl. Life was good and there was no end in sight.
And then it was Thursday.
Everyone was distracted at work. There were meetings going on, first upstairs and then off campus, and later on campus in an impromptu staff meeting. Internet clips kept us glued to the screen as we tried desperately to decipher truth, accuracy, and some reason to believe the best. But as Thursday soldiered on, doubt was sitting lower and more heavily inside me.
I remember the feeling when I got home. My heart was kicking against my chest with frantic irregularity as I ran up the stairs to our room. The tightening knot in my stomach seemed to sink with each step. I opened our bedroom door, and with breathless shock sputtered, "Babe, some of it's true."
I had just returned from an elders' meeting where I learned that the seemingly absurd accusations leveled against our beloved pastor had enough truth in them to warrant his removal from office. On Friday, we learned that he would never be allowed back. By Sunday, we were sitting in church with hot tears racing down our faces, listening to letters that told us words we never thought we would hear. Our pastor had been a prominent national figure because of his role as president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He had been featured on Barbara Walters' program and other major news shows, had been called the most influential pastor in America. It was the biggest religious debacle in my lifetime. And it happened at my church. My church.
Thursday came and everything changed; my unshakeable "good life" became a nightmare of uncertainty. Would the church implode? Would everyone leave? Would I have a job next week? Could I ever get hired in ministry again? The songs, the influence, the success, the notoriety—it all became foolishly irrelevant.
Slowly, I replayed the past. The preceding years had been heady times. Our pastor's meteoric rise to the evangelical papacy paralleled the growing muscle of a conservative Christian movement now beginning to flex in the public square. The young men who had helped build our church, myself included, now found themselves swimming in much bigger circles of influence. We were talking to the press, traveling to Washington DC, and dropping more names than Old Testament genealogy. We had become powerful by association. And it was intoxicating. We were like the eager young men in Tobias Wolff's fictitious memoir of an elite prep school on the eastern seaboard, full of idealism and world-changing dreams.
It was a good dream and we tried to live it out, even while knowing that we were actors in a play, and that outside the theater was a world we would have to reckon with when the curtain closed and the doors were flung open.
On Thursday, the theater doors flung open. The dream was over now. There was no thought of making an impact or changing the world. It was now about survival. How could we help our church stay intact?
As the days became weeks, it became clear that our church was made up of strong families who truly were connected to each other. It is a community akin to a small Midwestern town. So what if the mayor is gone? We're all still here. I watched men and women rally together in a heroic display of Christlike love.
It wasn't long before the shock of scandal gave way to the discomfort of introspection. This was ultimately not about a fallen pastor; it was about fallen nature, a nature we all have lurking within us. It became less about the worst being true about him, and more about the worst being true about us. We began to allow the Lord to turn His spotlight, one more piercing than the light of any cameras, on our own hearts. Secret sins, recurring temptations, and hidden pride all looked sinister in His light. There was no such thing as a little white anything. Every weakness was now a dangerous monster with the potential of ruining our lives. Couples began to have difficult conversations with each other, friends became more vulnerable than they had ever been. Honest was the new normal. That sounds so strange to say.
But far beyond discussions and confessions, one question, one I never thought I would have trouble answering, relentlessly worked its way to my core. It surfaced from the pages of Henri Nouwen's book In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen had been an influential theology professor at Harvard, living at what most would have considered the apex of his career. But something was wrong.
After twenty years in the academic world as a teacher of pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality, I began to experience a deep inner threat. As I entered into my fifties ... I came face to face with the simple question, "Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?" After twenty-five years of priest-hood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues.
But Nouwen's inner wrestling was largely unnoticed by those around him, which made it more difficult for him to accurately gauge the condition of his heart.
Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed ... I was living in a very dark place and ... the term "burnout" was a convenient psychological translation for spiritual death.
Haunted by the emptiness of his own spiritual walk, Nouwen started on a journey that eventually led to his resignation from Harvard. He took a position as a chaplain at L'Arche, a care facility for the handicapped. There he learned what it meant to live out a life of love and servanthood, to live as Christ among the broken, to truly "lead in the name of Jesus." I had read his profound and honest reflections years before, but as I reread them in the wake of the scandal, I found myself convicted. Nouwen's question dealt with something deeper than sin; it was about the essence of the Christian life, the thing we must have above all else.
I remember sitting with a few friends in my living room on New Year's Eve, reflecting on how insane 2006 had been. We decided to have a little dessert and ponder the year that was now in its closing hours. Each couple took turns reviewing highs and lows of the year. For the most part, it had been a good year. Bigger and better opportunities, unexpected financial success, the births of healthy children, and the accelerated elimination of debt were some of the items on the good list. But we had also experienced Thursday, and "bigger and better" now seemed as days long ago, auld lang syne. The events of that day in November now overshadowed everything the next year might hold. Everything was good now, but how long would it continue? Would the things that had gone awry last year create repercussions that would undermine all the things we had held so dearly? For some, the fear of losing the jobs they loved was becoming a distinct possibility. The reality of how suddenly a curve in the road can appear was sobering us.
And then I raised The Question: Did we—did I—know Christ more as a result of the passing of another year? Were we any closer to God? It was not the sort of question to answer out loud. I wrestled with it in silence. It was a question of my own relationship with Christ.
I have been a Christian since I was a young boy. I spent my high school years sitting in on the Old Testament history classes my mom taught at our church's Bible college, listening to sermon tapes, and praying and planning with my dad as he and my mom planted a church. My youth was defined by long quiet times, meaningful journal entries, and leadership roles in our youth group. I was a theology major in college and had been in full-time, vocational ministry for six years. Yet in the wake of Thursday, none of this mattered. Did I truly know God ... today? Was my knowledge of Him active and alive, or stale and sentimental?
There was no easy or succinct way to answer that question. But as I allowed it to burrow its way in my heart, I began to see something. I had long lived subconsciously believing that God was a sort of cosmic agent, working to get me bigger contracts and better deals while saving me from scammers and opportunists. God was my Jerry Maguire, my ambassador of quan, and my prayers were spiritually cloaked versions of asking Him to "show me the money." Not necessarily literal money—just comfort, success, good friends, an enjoyably smooth road, an unmitigated path to the peak of my game.
If you had suggested that theology to me, I would have condemned it, criticized it, and denied three times that I even knew of it. It wasn't until Thursday came and went that I saw what was lurking inside. I had slowly bought the suburban rumors of God. My house was an evidence of His blessing. Our growing church was an indication of God's pleasure. Things were going to get better and better while I kept my life on cruise control. Never mind that I had struggled—mostly unsuccessfully—to have consistent time alone with God. Forget that I had hardly spent time worshipping God offstage.
The more my wife and I searched our own souls, the more we realized we had become passive, complacent, at times even indifferent about our own knowledge of God. We had been lulled to sleep by our own apparent success, numbed into coasting by our spiritual Midas touch.
What began in the days after Thursday was a journey, a road of uncovering and discovering, of stripping away what thoughts of God we now knew were rumors and finding again the face of Christ.
These were not rumors that came from one man, one pastor. In fact, it's hard to say that any of them did. Any search for the headwaters would be misguided anyway. Because that's not the point. It's not where the rumors came from; it's why they came at all.
Here's what I've learned: Rumors grow in the absence of revelation. Every time we keep God at arm's length, declining an active, living knowledge of Him, we become vulnerable to rumors. Lulled by false comfort and half-truths about God, we—in Keith Green's famous words—fall asleep in the light.
What the Heck is Going On?
Until life comes to a screeching halt.
There are moments when time stands still. Our old vision of the world, like a scrim on a giant set, rolls up out of sight, leaving us with a jagged, stark picture of reality, its edges sharp, rough, and bare. Everything looks different, feels different. Things that once peppered our lives with meaning are now completely irrelevant and vain. Things we had ignored and overlooked are now incredibly clear, almost stunning in the forefront. The football team whose games you would never miss now seems horridly trivial. The powerful boss you were trying to impress, you now scorn and dismiss. The child you once wished would just go to sleep, you now run to hold in your arms.
A death of a loved one, the finality of divorce, the weight of debt crushing into bankruptcy—these are the moments that shake us, that wake us up and make us numb all at the same time. My moment is not that tragic in light of others. I think of a friend whose wife is facing a medically incurable disease. Or another friend whose wife decided married life was overrated and the party scene was where she belonged. I know a father who can't escape the grief of losing a child years ago. Sorrow covers him like a cape and time offers no oxygen. There is no way to compare tragic moments. The game of my-moment-is-worse-than-your-moment, while possible, is seldom profitable. Pain is acutely real to those who are breaking under its weight.
These are the "what the heck?" moments. The moments where everything stops except you, as you slowly look around. Examining. Reflecting. Puzzled. Bewildered. The silence is broken by a bellow from deep inside: "What the heck is going on?" Or some less sanitized version of the same. How could this be? And what's more, how could this be while God is with me?
The psalmists understood this feeling well. Fully two-thirds of Psalms are laments, an old-fashioned term for a "what the heck?" moment prayer. Imagine these words being prayed at church:
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Ps. 10:1)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (Ps. 22:1–2)
My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" (Ps. 42:3)
These were covenant people, people to whom God had made an unbreakable promise, a promise to bless them, protect them, and make their days go well. So why on earth were they being pursued by enemies, losing their belongings, and getting depressed—all while watching the wicked flourish? It didn't make sense. It wasn't lining up with the covenant—or at least their understanding of it. And so they took their complaint up with God.
What's interesting is that, for the most part, we don't find out how God specifically responded. There are "psalms of Thanksgiving," where the psalmist restates his lament in the past tense—recounting how he was in trouble—and then gives thanks to God for delivering him. But the "lament psalms" grossly outnumber the "thanksgiving psalms." We don't know if all became well on earth all the time. But we are told two crucial things: the consistent character of God—good, just, faithful, loving—and the characteristic response of the psalmists—the choice to praise. In one of the psalms quoted earlier, the words of lament are followed by these words of praise:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. (Ps. 22:3)
Maybe in some ways, the Bible is written the way the Oracle in The Matrix prophesies: It only tells us what we need to know. It does not tell us all there is to know, only what we need for life and godliness. Here is the lesson of the psalmists: All of our experiences and emotions can become a springboard to find God and see Him for ourselves. God is present on every scene, waiting, wanting us to seek Him, believe in Him, and worship Him with every ounce of our existence.
Our discussion here is not first about suffering. The question of whether God causes it, allows it, or has nothing to do with it, has been voiced since the days in the garden. Our discussion here is simply that these moments—whether they come from our free will, the Devil's evil schemes, or God's strange providence—present us with an opportunity. Regardless of your theology, these two things are common to mankind: We all experience a measure of suffering, and every experience can be redeemed.
C. S. Lewis wrote, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
Crumbs of Rumor
Too often, we walk through life with our hands fixed firmly over our eyes and ears, ignoring and avoiding the living presence of Christ with us—maybe from fear or guilt or simple apathy. But every once in awhile, our hands are pried off our faces, our eyes are almost forcibly opened, our ears are unplugged. We catch a glimpse for ourselves, a glimpse that will be our undoing. And our salvation. In that moment, we are ruined and redeemed by that little glimpse.
Job had that experience.
He never auditioned for the role, never signed up for the part. God chose him. He chose him, we are often told, to prove a point to the Devil. But I'm beginning to wonder if God chose him to show Himself to Job, to save Job from the stiff, straight lines he had drawn around God. Think about it. The story doesn't end with the Devil returning to heaven and saying, "Okay, God, You win. You were right. Job didn't curse You. He does indeed serve You for nothing in return." If that were the central tension in the story, there is a glaring lack of resolution.
Excerpted from Secondhand Jesus by GLENN PACKIAM. Copyright © 2009 Glenn Packiam. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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