Writing a memoir is a lot like walking the shoreline of the sea after some great storm, collecting bits of wreckage or debris and assembling the tale from the pieces. When I started writing my memoir back in 2012, I had an idea where I wanted to go with it. Well, as I’ve sifted the flotsam, the story has taken new turns. The following is one of them.
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Faith is not a delicate thing like a porcelain figurine or a dandelion. Though it starts small and gestates unseen, it often does so in harsh, inhospitable conditions, where the terrain forces it to take root in something deep and hidden. Faith does not own a summer dress and rarely lets its hair down. Its wardrobe consists of aprons, gardening gloves, and overalls; earth and grime collect under its nails. You could say that faith is blue collar. It has scabs and skinned knuckles. Faith is often missing a digit or two. But the remaining stubs are in nowise useless. Faith can be agile, when necessary. Though sometime it plods. Yet for the most part its contortions are not for show, but simply evidences of survival. Faith is forged in the furnace and on the anvil, rarely in the classroom or the pew.
“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,” said Dostoyevski. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”
I feel like this sometimes. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Doubt in myself. Doubt in my senses and my objectivity. Doubt in those who claim to know the way. Doubt, sometimes, in my understanding of God’s Word. Yet, like the Russian novelist, I praise.
Which is why I cringe when faith is portrayed as blind, or as soft and simple-minded.
Kim’s faith was not like that. Not at all.
I baptized her privately, in a Doughboy pool in someone’s back yard, one smoggy Southern California summer. Kim hated to be the center of attention, which is why she opted out of our annual all-church pot-lock and baptism in favor of less hooplah. Besides, her mother would not approve of her being baptized by a Protestant minister.
Kim’s twin sister, Karen had attended the small church I pastored and extended an invitation. Kim came by herself at first, as she was in the process of separating from a physically abusive husband. Eventually, she brought her boyfriend. They were somewhat standoffish, but friendly. It was obvious that they were not “church people.” Unlike many of our church members, Christian culture was new and awkward for them. Still, Kim listened intently during my sermons, and by all counts was on board with this Jesus stuff. Nevertheless, she smiled and remained at arms length. So it was with equal degrees of surprise and celebration that, when she asked to be baptized, I concurred.
Later on, ovarian cancer would bring Kim the kind of attention she hated.
Chemotherapy was immediately begun, as the disease was already breaching other systems.
What is the appropriate response to someone who is diagnosed with such cancer? Do you shake your head, intone about how tragic and scary this must be? Do you hug them, promise to pray, and then go home and try to forget about what chemotherapy and cancer does to the human body? Do you offer medical or dietary advice? Do you recall stories about the friend of a friend who was given six months to live and defied all odds?
I may have over-stepped my bounds when I heard the news about Kim. My wife and I visited their home and after some chit-chat, I managed to speak to Kim alone in the kitchen. I was not known for pulling punches, and didn’t then. “Kim,” I said, “if the Lord chooses to take your life with this cancer, are you confident about where you will go?”
Some may see this as cruel. Perhaps judgmental and presumptive. Who was I to barge into her suffering with these rude, thorny questions?
Kim hesitated, and finally admitted no, she wasn’t sure.
It led to a great series of discussions between us about saving faith. We talked about the reliability of Scripture, about how we can trust the transmission of the documents and the witness of its writers; we talked about evidences for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; we talked about salvation by grace, rather than works. And we talked about Kim’s profession of faith, which I had witnessed in that Doughboy swimming pool. Along with heaven.
Kim’s battle with cancer lasted a few years. Her faith did not bring healing or counteract the savage effects of the chemo. She lost her hair and wore a wig to church. I caught her in the foyer one day, hurrying out because she was crying. The cancer went into a short period of remission before returning again. She declined further treatment.
One day, after church, my wife and I went to Kim’s house. I brought my guitar and sat in their living room and we sang praise songs. Just like we had at church in those early days of her faith. Afterwards, I took Kim in my arms and started bawling. Uncontrollably. Huge, snotty sobs. It was quite awkward.
I was crying as much for me as I was her.
I think my faith lost a digit right there. At least, it’s left a scar.
They made a place for Kim downstairs where she basically withered away. She stopped eating, became skeletal, and was often incoherent. In a way, her death was a relief. She had fought the good fight. She was no longer suffering. I officiated her funeral, managing not to bawl again. I talked about the day I baptized Kim, about how Love is stronger than death and how Jesus rose to prove it, how Kim expressed faith in that Christ and his promises. And how she died holding fast to heaven.
Faith is enigmatic that way. It dies waiting, looking, hoping. Unfulfilled. It dies on the anvil. It dies in its boots.
Kim is one of the many pilgrims I’ve encountered along the way. They were walking paradoxes who’ve believed bigger than their experiences, professed what they never could attain, who’ve clung resolutely to promises yet unfulfilled. Saints and sinners. Living and dying. People who’ve hoped beyond hope.
In the borderlands between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the place where I was raised, dogmatism is a virtue. Yet so often these days I find myself in another borderland.
Pastor John Wimber described it as a “radical middle.”
Scripture seems to allow for such a place. A radical middle, a place of holy tension, a place that allows for mystery and ambiguity, a perspective that doesn’t require definitive answers and demand labels. It is an approach to faith that, while acknowledging Black and White, also makes room for Gray. It is a place where those who are truly alive, die; a place where it’s okay to not have everything figured out. It is somewhere between being “fully persuaded” (Rom. 4:21) and realizing we only “know in part” (I Cor. 13:12). It is the kingdom that is both in our midst (Lk. 17:21), and not quite here (Matt. 6:10). It is the cognitive dissonance between being convinced of God and his Word, and the realization that some of your beliefs could be dead wrong. It is the man who cried to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). It is the embrace of paradox, and paradoxical people. It is the middle ground between certainty and wonder. It is the celebration of enigma.
I like to call it paradoxology.
This is the story of an unconventional faith journey, an exploration of spirituality in the midst of a complicated world, a trek through ministry and evangelical culture, and the heroes, heretics, and oddballs I’ve encountered along the way. If anything, it’s the tale of survival, of how I embraced paradoxology and came to believe that God was too big to be contained in any one doctrine, creed, theorem, or denomination.
It’s a journey that has landed me square in the radical middle.