I've sometimes wondered why God led me to seminary just to have me quit. I started taking classes, part-time, online, in the Fall of 2003. I was excited, but I was apprehensive as well. You see, I had some doubts, not just about going to seminary and pursuing ordination, but about my faith as well. They swirled around in my head, they caused me to furrow my brow, they caused me to sit at my kitchen table and cry and say "what if everything I have ever believed is wrong?" If that wasn't enough, I also felt guilty about doubting. After all, I had already been leading in various ways in my church and for some reason, I felt as if I was supposed to be strong in my faith and know the answers. I didn't think I was supposed to have doubts. And so even as I filled out my seminary application, I pushed those doubts aside, determined to not let them get to me.
Those doubts kept pricking at me here and there, though, and I really had no idea what to do with them. And then, I took one of my first classes in seminary called "Kingdom, Church, and World". It was in this class that I was introduced to two authors: N.T. Wright and Brian McLaren via their books The Challenge of Jesus and A New Kind of Christian.
I can't remember in which order I read the books, but they were both instrumental in helping to strengthen the faith that I sometimes felt I was hanging onto by only a thread. There were times that my faith was like a child's loose tooth and I was afraid that all of a sudden, it would be gone and there would be a gaping hole where it used to be.
In Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian, I learned that it was ok to ask questions. Asking questions did not mean that I was giving up on faith, but rather, I was seeking to explore and understand it further. It was through this book that I learned that being a Christian was not just about getting my butt into heaven (page 129) and that kingdom of heaven was something here and now and not just some place to go after I was dead. This sparked excitement in me and although there were still many things that were unclear (and sometimes still are), I started to feel something come alive again and the idea of following Jesus as a journey, not a destination, resonated with me.
There were still some problems, though. Somewhere along the way, I had made some Orthodox Jewish friends and through them I was introduced to an entirely new way of looking at Scripture, a way of looking at scripture without a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, a way of looking at Scripture while still anticipating the Messiah. I often felt in over my head in these online message board discussions because pretty much everyone knew the Bible much better than I did, and, not only that, they knew Hebrew. In fact, one of my friends even learned Greek so he could read the New Testament in Greek and to this day I think he knows the New Testament better than many Christians I have known. I never argued or tried to prove them wrong but just sought to learn and understand where they were coming from, and it was very enlightening (I'll write a post about this for my "What I Learned" series one of these days), despite it also being very troubling. Many portions of scripture and beliefs I had never questioned were now being cast in a new light.
But The Challenge of Jesus helped me to see Jesus not just as a savior who had somehow died for my sins, but brought the historical person, rooted in first-century Judaism, to life for me. It was how I started to learn context for the first time, and it was how I started to better understand the issue of Jesus being fully God and fully man (chapter 5). It helped me to know that we cannot just pluck Jesus out of his Jewish identity and still have him make sense. The narrative in the Hebrew Scriptures is not Old or outdated or irrelevant but is essential to understanding anything in the New Testament.
Doubt is a scary place to be. But through these books, I learned that doubt is not the absence of faith, but instead can be the very thing that can help to strengthen faith. It can be the impetus for really delving into what one believes and why one believes it.
I want to share with you two of my favorite quotations from these books. First, from A New Kind of Christian:
"We hear 'kingdom of heaven' and we think 'kingdom of life after death.' But that's the very opposite of what Jesus is talking about. Remember--he says repeatedly, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, has arrived! It's near, here, at hand, among you! It's not just about after you die; it's about here, now, in this life!" (page 107)And from The Challenge of Jesus:
"Let me be clear, also, what I am not saying. I do not think Jesus 'knew he was God' in the same sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge, like knowing that two and two make four; nor was it straightforwardly observational knowledge, like knowing that there is a bird on the fence outside my room because I can see and hear it. It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way--a knowledge most securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer. It was, in short the knowledge that characterizes vocation." (pages 121-122, emphasis in bold mine).If you are reading this and you are struggling in your faith, if you have questions that just don't seem to have answers, please know that you are not alone. Your faith journey is your faith journey and nobody can take it away from you. Let Jesus challenge you to be a new kind of Christian. Continue to listen for God's call upon your life and enjoy and embrace the journey on which He is guiding you, the journey to partner with Him in continuing to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.