Faith, Stories Told

Moving on is a simple thing; what it leaves behind is hard

When I measure the health of North Liberty Christian Church in terms of key external indicators, things don’t look good. I’ve been writing about this church’s challenges for two years now, chronicling its story of a dying congregation, of leaving the land it called home for 170 years, of delays and cost overruns in building a smaller and more affordable building, and of worshiping in space rented from a neighboring church. In the months since I last wrote about the church, it has been unable to raise funds to cover the overages, no further progress has been made on the new building, the pastor has resigned, and an elder has stepped down and left the church with his family.

If this church were a football team, I’d say it was down 30 points at the two-minute warning.

Inside Bethel

But a remarkable thing has been happening that shows that this congregation has a future. The church has been slowly growing. Six months ago, half the chairs in the rented sanctuary were empty every Sunday. Today they’re all full, as are many more chairs that have been added. The church regained several members who left years ago in sadness while the church was riddled with strife. Even better, several newcomers have started attending regularly. I think it’s because the congregation has healed from its wounds and has emerged united and hopeful. You can feel it during worship – the Holy Spirit is free to dwell among the people because they are able to receive. Returning members and newcomers are responding to that, and they’re staying.

But my sons and I are not. I’m the elder who stepped down; it is my family who has left.

During 2010 circumstances in my sons’ lives required more and more of my time and attention. My role in the church as a teacher and elder took a lot of time and energy, and so did my job, and soon I was stretched too thin. I quit teaching – which I miss, by the way – to try to gain some balance. It wasn’t enough. Additionally, as the year wore on I increasingly found myself disagreeing with the other elders. We weren’t fighting; I just felt God was leading the church in one direction, and they felt like he was leading it in another. By late last year my competing pressures had pushed me to the edge of exhaustion, and I knew something else had to give. It was clear to me that my time as an elder needed to end, for my health and the congregation’s.

I served in that church because I thought it was God’s mission for me, and without that service I was at loose ends for several months. But as my spirit was restored and I gave more time and energy to my sons, I began to see that they are the mission God has in mind for me now. It changed my focus. My sons were the only youth their age at North Liberty and I had known for some time that they wished it were different. Now I see that they need interaction with others their ages who are also seeking God. And even though the church is growing, it is attracting people whose children are grown. It seems unlikely that my sons will find friends there any time soon. When my older son recently joined the youth group at his mother’s church, I knew we had to find someplace where he and his brother could plug in.

Still, I dragged my feet. I love the people at North Liberty Christian Church. I was honored to serve them and blessed to be in community with them. Also, they stood by me as my marriage ended, which was the most difficult time of my life. Many of them know how I contributed to my marriage’s end and loved me anyway. A few of them were on my short list of people to call, and talked me off the ledge time and again when I despaired the hardest. It is hard to leave behind these people who showed such Godly grace to me.

And so I felt little joy on Sunday as we worshiped elsewhere for the first time. I hoped that singing to God would put me into the spirit, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I was in a funk most of the day. But I also feel hopeful because I’m sure that God has excellent service in store for us with our next congregation. Perhaps the way I thought I saw God leading North Liberty might instead be the kind of church God is leading me to find for my family. I hope we find it soon.


I came to believe

I’ve been thinking for months about writing a post called, “Why I follow God.” It all started when two bloggers I follow began discussing God’s existence with each other on their blogs. In short, one believes and the other doesn’t. I wanted to add to the discussion, but the more I thought about it the more my faith deconstructed. It created a minor crisis in my faith, until I finally realized that I believe in God because I want to, and that I follow God because I have decided to.

That would be my shortest post ever. So I decided I should explain.

I think we curious humans naturally look for answers to big questions: How does the universe work? How did life begin? Is there a supreme being? We weigh evidence and draw conclusions against the backdrop of our predispositions.

Some end up predisposed toward God and others toward reason and evidence. I came to be predisposed toward God, I think, when my parents briefly sent me to a church’s Sunday school. I rather liked the idea of a loving creator. (Later unsatisfactory encounters with people professing their faith did deter me for a while.)

Monon Bridge

I wrote long ago about how, as a young adult, achieving my dreams left me unfulfilled and failed relationships left me sad and lonely. In despair and depression I decided to seek God. My search led me down a winding road that has ultimately left me with faith, which has sustained me through later, even more difficult times.

It’s not that I don’t dig reason. When I was a young student, my best subjects always included math and science. I followed that path to engineering school, where I graduated with a degree in mathematics. So I came to Christ with a good grounding in logic, reasoning, and the scientific method. That knowledge tells me that you can never prove God.

To prove something requires evidence that makes the conclusion certain. Unfortunately, evidence for and against God is incomplete and imperfect. We may weigh it and draw our conclusion; we may even say that, to us, it proves or disproves God. But what we really mean, even if we deny it, is that the evidence resonates so well with us that we are willing to step over the gap of imperfection and incompleteness. For example, some argue that the universe’s intricately balanced design is evidence of an intelligent designer and therefore proof that God exists. Even my brother, who calls himself an atheist, considers our improbable existence in this mean universe and admits to a creating god. He steps that far over the gap. But he is correct when he says that nothing about this evidence points to a personal God, such as the one the Bible describes.

We draw lots of reasonable conclusions every day from the evidence available to us. We’re wired to do it; we have to do it because so much is uncertain or unknowable. I sometimes stop at a donut shop near my office and buy a dozen to share at work. It’s reasonable to conclude I can do this any morning I want. Unfortunately, the shop burned to the ground early one morning last autumn. Good thing I didn’t make a donut run on my way to work that day. So with any reasonable conclusion, we take some step of faith to believe it.

Rainbow Bridge

I think God hasn’t left conclusive evidence of himself lying around because he wants us to take a step of faith if we are to believe in him. My experience with God is that he loves me and wants my love back. In human relationships, love can fail. People you love can betray you, abuse you, or leave you destitute. Even if none of those things happen, someone you love could die before you, leaving you to grieve. Such are the risks you take when you choose to love. In choosing to love God, you risk him not being real. You risk the whole thing having been a sham.

Some won’t take that risk. Some who take that risk end up feeling gypped. If God is real and loves us, why is the world in such a sorry state? Why do so many people suffer? Why do I have to face pain, injustice, and loss? Everybody who contemplates God one day faces these questions; some reach them and turn away. My experience is that patience and determination carries a nascent faith through this crisis.

The worst thing I’ve ever been through was my brutal separation and divorce. I prayed for years that God would heal my marriage, but things just kept getting worse between my wife and me and eventually she hired a lawyer. How could God have ignored my desperate prayers? Doesn’t he hate divorce? I could easily have turned away from God in anger and disgust. I considered it. Yet facing crippling pain and loss, I decided to keep turning to God. I am not entirely sure why. During this time, I repeatedly suffered consequences from destructive choices, sometimes mine and sometimes my estranged wife’s. Each time things could have gone much worse for me than they did. It seemed to me as though somebody was placing soft pillows beneath me each time I fell. And then during this time I had an experience that felt to me like God was loving me directly (read about it here).

Broad Ripple

I perceived a pattern of intervention too strong for me to write off as a string of coincidences, and I chose to attribute them to God. This time of difficulty actually cemented my faith. I’m God’s; there’s no turning back. Some might argue that I am drawing too heavy of a conclusion from scant evidence. I freely admit that my conclusion involves a big step of faith.

The only way I can explain this is to compare it to the way we bind to our mothers when we’re newly born. Our ability to perceive the world is extremely limited. We don’t even see our mothers as separate from us. Yet as we grow, the love that our mothers hopefully showed us through touch and care seeds in us. We know our mothers love us. And so, through my limited ability to perceive God, I have experienced what I believe to be his loving involvement in my life. I have concluded that God is real and loves me.

And so it goes, I think, for anyone who determines to patiently follow God. Sooner or later they experience God in their lives. At that moment, God starts to become as real to them as their mother.

Unfortunately, you can’t get there without making that step of faith. You have to choose to believe and decide to follow. God can be nothing but elusive, mysterious, and maddening until you make that choice. He becomes less so as your faith grows.

The key to patient determination is discipline. You have to keep at it.


The temple’s grandeur

Thanks to Solomon’s sins, Israel found itself exiled, scattered across Babylon. Jersualem, and Solomon’s glorious temple with it, was destroyed. But much later, as God said would happen, King Cyrus allowed any Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. 50,000 of them went back, and right away started work on an altar and the temple. The new temple couldn’t be as grand as the old; there weren’t the resources. But soon the foundation was laid. Ezra 3:11-13 tells what happened next.

And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away. (NASB)

Many of these Jews were born and raised in exile and had never known the original temple. Perhaps their parents and grandparents had told them stories about the old days. It’s probably safe to assume that they went to Jerusalem because they wanted to do God’s work of rebuilding the temple and restoring worship. So finishing the temple’s foundation brought them great joy.

But some old-timers had seen the original temple and knew its grandeur. It was clear by the new temple’s foundation that the former grandeur would not be restored. They mourned what they had lost, and they cried bitterly.

I taught this in Sunday school a couple Sundays ago. A woman in her 80s said, “I know how the old-timers felt. I remember how worship used to be here. It was grand. I felt like we were really giving our best to God. But things have changed so much.”

The second temple after Herod renovated and expanded it

Everybody in the room understood. I wasn’t there then, but I’ve been told: In days gone by, there was an organ and a choir and all the old songs. The order of worship was set, inviolable. Reverence and awe filled the room during that hour every Sunday morning. But things have changed. As older members passed on or moved on and their children moved away, membership dropped sharply. In response, a new preacher took the church in a different direction. Gone are the organ and choir and most of the old songs; in is a small praise band and several new contemporary songs. Gone is the sacrosanct worship order; now we mix things up to keep it fresh. Gone is the reverence and awe; now many of us raise our hands and dance and sway as we focus on the joy of experiencing God’s love.

Even though I was never part of the worship she remembers, I think I know where she’s coming from, and I said so. I came from a non-instrumental Church of Christ, and that congregation could sing. When we lifted our voices as one, it was with such power I was sure we’d pop the roof right off. I felt that our singing really gave our best to the Lord. When I left there and came to this church, the singing seemed anemic to me. I still don’t get into the hand-raising, dancing, and swaying that people do instead. I just keep singing out, and I’m probably the loudest person in the room. I badly miss the strong congregational singing we enjoyed in the Church of Christ.

But God made good use of the Jews’ new temple despite its lack of grandeur. Not only was Jesus presented to the Lord in it (Luke 2:22-40), but when Jesus was 12 he sat among the teachers here, questioning them and hearing their answers (Luke 2:41-51). This plainer temple did not hinder Jesus’ growth.

Then in John 2, Jesus gives us the proper perspective. Standing in the temple, having just run off the moneychangers, somebody asked him his authority for having done it. Jesus said in verse 19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (NASB)

Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple building, he was talking about himself. Jesus is the temple that matters. How we organize and execute the hour of worship every week is less important than how we carry out every hour the mission Jesus gave us. When we are in Jesus, we are in His temple, and we need to be doing His business under whatever circumstances He provides!

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hurt when changes come to things we held dear that we did for God. But we must stretch ourselves to trust Jesus as he sets the circumstances in which we work.

At my church, we appear to be growing again, and we’re not robbing from other churches to do it. We’ve had several baptisms, all adults in young families, in recent months. Our hour of worship appears to connect with them. I’m not sure our old style of worship would have.

If these new Christians grow to maturity, they, too, will someday mourn practices they hold dear as Jesus makes changes that draw more souls to Him.