From Doubt to Faith: Why I BelieveNo Chance to Plead
Frederick Buechner has famously said that “Doubts are the ants in the pants. They keep it awake and moving” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, HarperSanFrancisco, 1973, p. 20). Our authors write on how they have stayed awake and moving as they have faced doubt. They include: Joelle Colville-Hanson, Roland, Iowa; Nikki Loftin, Austin, Texas; Dennis W. Moore, Schnecksville, Pennsylvania; Lester F. Polenz, Mansfield, Ohio; and Carl Peterson, Columbus, Ohio. We have also included additional online-only submissions from Timothy Lemme, Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Robert S. Ove, Rio Rancho, New Mexico; and Sherry McGuffin, Petosky, Michigan.
One bright Sunday afternoon I sat calmly on my porch step while a sheriff informed me that my husband had been killed in a car accident hours earlier, on his way to visit his ill father in another state.
He was gone. Dead for hours. I had no opportunity to pray and plead with God for his life. It was too late to offer God those deals we make in desperation, even though we know better. Worse than hearing those words from the sheriff was seeing the looks on my children’s faces — already tearful, suspecting something terrible — and
not being able to say the only thing that would reassure them. I could not tell them everything would be all right. At that moment I did not believe anything would ever be all right again.
That is the heart of doubt — thinking that nothing will be right again. That was the despair of the disciples in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s not just the personal grief of losing the person you love; it’s the disorientation of having the world you made for yourself turned upside down. It’s not just doubting if God exists; it’s doubting that God is good. Faith is not trusting that “everything will be all right.” Faith is trusting God even though nothing is right and looks like it never will be again. Faith is facing the possibility that it will never be “all alright” again in the way you have become accustomed.
The faith of grief is not about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Rather, it is believing the promise that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The faith of grief does not make everything better. It just promises that someday it will be better. That promise was enough to keep me going, to do what I had to do to take care of my children and take care of myself. I didn’t know if it would ever be better, but I knew that believing it would be better was better than not believing. And so I lived as though I believed and in that living grew back into my faith.
Sometimes faith is just living as though you believe it can be better. I believe that where such faith is lived, God is present. And the kingdom comes just a little closer.
Words in a Pantry
My eight-year-old son Cameron followed me into the pantry to talk, so I knew it was serious.
“Mom, I don’t want to go to church anymore.”
“Why not? What’s happened?”
“None of my friends go. They don’t even believe in God.”
“Honey, what’s going on? I thought you liked our new church.”
A guilty look. “I only like the donuts.”
I sat down on the boxes that lined the wall — boxes from the nine years I had spent working in churches as a director of children’s ministries. For years, I had felt called by God to teach children. Eighteen months ago, I felt God calling me to another task. When I first felt the tug away from our lovely church, our friends and family, I ignored it. God doesn’t like to be ignored and made things increasingly uncomfortable for me until I threw my hands up and said (to quote one of the songs that God used to pester me with during those months) “let Jesus take the wheel.”
I doubted everything: whether we would be able to live without my salary, whether it was the right time, whether it was best for my family, whether we would be able to find a new church. I had given hundreds of children’s sermons during those nine years, and now, in my doubt-filled pantry, I couldn’t find the right words to help my own child.
“None of your friends believe?”
Cameron shook his head. “They don’t even think there is a God. And I don’t want them to know I’m a Christian. They’ll think I pray all the time. Sean will think I’m weird.” (Sean was Cameron’s new best friend who came over every Wednesday after school.)
I didn’t have the right words, but God did. That Wednesday, my five-year-old son asked for Bible stories at bedtime. Daniel had just been thrown into the lions’ den when Sean and Cameron wandered in to listen. “Have you ever heard that story, Sean?” I asked.
“No,” Cameron interrupted. “Sean doesn’t believe in God.”
“Really,” I asked. “You don’t?” Sean shook his head no.
My five-year-old swiveled around, a look of amazement on his face. “But God’s real!” A shout unqualified, brave, and true. The faith of a child, my child. Sean looked at Cameron with an unspoken question. Cameron nodded, just a little. And then my doubts were gone. The children’s sermons I had given all those years were to children, most of whom were children who believed and who knew God was real. But here, in my own home, God sent me a child who needed to hear this eternal story, a child who did not know God. This is what I had been practicing for all along.
That night, I opened my Bible to Luke 15 and fell asleep reading about lost sheep, lost coins, lost children, knowing that no matter how lost Cameron and I felt, there was no doubt God was still there, finding us again and again.
More than a Note
My first year in seminary was a time of great wrestling after my naïveté about Scripture’s source was challenged. I wasn’t certain that I wanted to continue as I entered Clinical Pastoral Education. That experience did little to answer the questions I had, especially while being held hostage at gunpoint for an hour during one of my CPE visits. (That’s true, but it’s another story for another time!)
As I started my second year of seminary, I wrestled with whether or not the gospel was truth, or if the whole church was just a “feel-good” potion for ailing souls. Was there real power and truth in what I was being trained to share, or was it a nice service to seekers wanting to ease the pain of life? I’m not certain exactly how I expected God to answer my wrestling — but I sure wasn’t ready for the way it happened.
On Friday, the 13th of September, 1974, my wife and I were on our way home from the seminary to western Pennsylvania. It was dark and rainy as we started down over the Laurel Mountains on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at mile marker 97.5. As I rounded a bend, we came upon an accident involving at least two cars that were still in the middle of the road. We navigated through the accident and I pulled off on the berm, telling my wife I would be right back. I had just purchased two road flares the week before, and I was going to put them out so no one else struck the two disabled vehicles.
As I walked around the bend I saw the lights of another vehicle approaching. I stopped, lit a flare, and watched the vehicle continue to approach. Suddenly, it was as if someone had put their hand on the approaching car. It slid on the wet road right at me, and the last thing I remember was throwing the flare and pushing away from the headlight. The driver didn’t stop. Some 20 minutes later a trucker, who had pulled over to assist, heard my moaning in a storm drain on the side of the mountain.
I lay on the side of the road in more pain than I ever want to experience again; fading in and out of consciousness; rain pouring down on me; and someone saying, “Where’s the ambulance? He’s going into shock.” God gave me the answer to my wrestling. There was a power greater than a frightened young man could ever muster from within and an inner voice that communicated God’s presence and peace to me. It was a moment I will never forget. Oh, I wish God had simply written a note and left it on my refrigerator — “I’m here. I’m real. God.” But it probably wouldn’t have had the same impact (pun definitely intended).
Later that night or early the next morning, and two hospitals later, a nurse in ICU took my blood pressure while I was awake. In an attempt to make me feel better she said, “Your blood pressure’s pretty good for someone in your condition.” Boy, was I glad God and I had talked earlier that night.
Dennis W. Moore
Searched and Known
Psalm 139 has had a special meaning for me ever since it spoke to my direst need. Something drastic had happened to my body, and I had the pallor of the dead. I had trouble even standing and knew that my circulation was sadly lacking. Alone at the Cleveland Clinic, I awaited my next morning’s appointment. By “accident” I had turned to Psalm 139 and found there a message of God’s love and care. We will never know what ailed me, for the next morning, like a miracle, the blood flowed again! Standing in line to register for some heart tests, I saw my flesh restored. That event helped me face a later trial that again had led me to doubt and near despair.
I marvel at those who never seem to doubt, but who trust that all will work out for good, as Romans 8:28 clearly states. My wife has this kind of faith. In her quiet way, she has stood by me in my darkest moments, never doubting a bright tomorrow. And it has turned out that way, despite the agony of loss, fear, and doubt when I lost my job, my reputation, and we had to receive charity one Christmas when we had nothing. At my retirement and now, I can only express my attitude toward life in the words of Psalm 23: “My cup runneth over!”
Midcareer, I was tarred with gossip that said I was a petty thief and adulterer. The Sunday school offering did turn up missing, but why would a pastor be suspect? As to the adultery, I am one whom God helped remain celibate until a late marriage. I was not guilty, but gossip is believed and I was never again to be assured of a pastoral call. Having to vacate the parsonage, I became a camper and headed to a state park. There I was ministered to by strangers who became like dearest friends.
Before long, I left the park, without work and nearly unemployable since I had few skills beyond farming and preaching. I ended up in Florida hoping for a job as a state chaplain. The supervisor was impressed with my interview, but there were no openings. Later, willing to do anything, I applied for an ordinary job with the prison system and learned that there was an opening at a training school for young offenders. I applied, was hired by a fellow Lutheran, and spent three terrific, challenging years as chaplain. When that school closed, I became chaplain at a state prison. Always having an interest in corrections, I spent the remaining years until retirement in prison ministry that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
A multitude of Scripture passages might be mentioned as comfort and help in times of doubt, but none is so well stated as Genesis 45. Paraphrased, it says, “Others meant it for evil but God meant it for good.” I do not believe that God plans evil, for that is the work of Satan alone. But God’s wisdom frustrates the evil, and uses it for good. The four months I spent in torturous doubt, fear, and searching prepared me well for the years I spent ministering among those whose lives were misdirected and burdened.
Little did I know that in those sad days of mine, I was being trained to better serve God’s people who were forgotten and who lived in fear themselves. I have learned well to turn to God’s words and promises, so though I may fail for a little while, I know that our Lord is always trustworthy, especially through Jesus the Son who also fell prey to doubt as he hung on the cross.
Lester F. Polenz
Faith of Scientist
I believe Jesus Christ represents that unique duality of a human being that passed through history and the divine nature of God as the ever-living Christ. That is, Jesus was human and is divine. How do I, a trained scientist, connect with this belief and witness to Jesus as the Christ in a postmodern and multifaith society? What is the context, what is the reasoning process that I must bring to this understanding of Jesus? What are the tensions that arise?
Jesus of Nazareth is a unique human as portrayed in the New Testament: a teacher, a prophet, and a miracle worker performing extraordinary deeds. Yet he left no written records as far as we know. His life and history are as presented by his followers, and their claim that he is the everlasting Christ rests solely on his life, ministry, and death. That he came from God in the incarnation and returned to God by resurrection and ascension are paradoxical assertions and counterintuitive claims that put me at the crossroad.
In response to God’s promises and gifts made through baptism, I study Scripture, pray, and use reason that I may know God. The Gospels portray the deeds of Jesus Christ and connect and reveal God to me. But the resurrection story raises questions for a scientist. Jesus died by crucifixion, an end reserved for criminals and villains. However, the disciples of Jesus believed the crucifixion was God’s great conciliatory act through Jesus’ death, and this is my belief, too, through a “leap of faith.” Golgotha was the place of redemption and hope for humanity, not the death of a criminal. The hour in which the Son of Man was glorified (John 12:23, 32), and the paradox of Jesus’ crucifixion were resolved by his being raised from the dead on the third day. Although the mortal human died, Christ lives!
Also, I enjoy engaging in interfaith forums. As a member of the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio (IACO), I delight in the challenges that promote dialogue in our spiritual sharing group and the opportunity for people of eight world religions to come together. Reasonable challenges to my faith are everywhere as we discuss commonalities and doctrinal differences in religions. Jesus is central to my confession of faith in God and helps me to be open with my associates, although he is not the center of their belief. Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs come together in our IACO organization.
My faith seeks to understand as I continue to question the incarnation, resurrection, and other events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. I am certain that there was a transforming event, shortly after that third day. It turned Good Friday’s dejected disciples to restored confidence in Jesus’ lordship a few days later. Since God acts through natural processes, as a trained scientist I search for possible analogies of this event. Paul gives a helpful analogy in the planting of the dead seed (1 Corinthians 15:35-44) and the new creation that springs forth from it. Although this analogy has problems, there is a wealth of understanding. As I pose my final thoughts on my questioning faith and seek understanding, I am aware that God’s actions are unlimited.
I Am Job
“When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.”
I do not know when I first heard this saying, but it has stayed with me ever since. It causes me to question answers that are too certain. It makes me think that my assumptions could be biased from the beginning. It causes me to question what I know for sure. And it raises the questions like these: Do I need to know for sure? How can I ever go ahead with this in the back of my mind? How can I live in this mess? Is there any choice?
When I was born into this mess, I was sustained by food put into my digestive tract. I survived. I did not know that this food was “faith.” I accepted it without knowing that food might not come again. That I might die, or that this was a constant state, could not register to my infant brain. And now I “know” that it still is. We live precariously! Wise people warn us not to take life for granted. Thinking too often about the truth of our condition can cause insanity.
Yet all around me — and us — is life and faith. How can we find it? Is life and sustenance our due? Unless we become little children, with perfect faith, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. I should say not! When we can move mountains with faith, what a nonentity are we without it?
The shepherd psalm has it that I am so needy that I don’t have a clue about what I am to do. I need help to find food and water just as I did at birth. Socially, I am worse than that. Someone else has to say, “Nah, nah” to my enemies and show them that I amount to something. And finally I have to have a push to finish “all the days of my life.” I surely need goodness and mercy to finish the course.
Poor Job must have thought that he had made it all. Everything he used, he thought he invented. More riches than he could count, so far from one pair of pants and a place to live with simple sustaining food. And children came by his will! But Satan took him on. “See how far you can get without God,” Satan taunted, and Job did.
How far can we get without faith? Yes, I have a hammer and I am humbly looking for faith. God told me that — I am Job.
Name withheld by request
Our Gravel Road
The call comes in as I am sitting at my desk trying to get Sunday morning’s sermon done. Another crisis has arisen and someone needs my attention. My plans have been interrupted again. The work I was hoping to complete would have to wait. I grab my coat and rush off into the night, into the unknown, wondering all along what chaos I was again getting myself into.
It is during times like these that I sometimes question why anyone would consider the ordained ministry. The demands, the pressures, the uncertainty. Why? I ask myself.
So many times in life I have walked down roads, wondering where they would lead. Fear, doubts, questions are my constant companions. Will they ever let me be? Sometimes I wonder. And yet it is in the midst of these times, that I remember the lessons my mother taught me in my youth, lessons taught during walks down our gravel road.
Whenever the chaos of youth became too much for me, I would ask, “Mom, do you mind going for a walk with me?” Seldom did she not find the time to walk down our gravel road with me. Perhaps it would be a quarter mile or so before I would find the words to tell her what was on my mind. If the problem was bigger, it would take a half mile or even a mile. But always she waited to hear what I had to say, walking in silence beside me, waiting until I was ready to speak. Somehow even her silence gave peace to my soul. Maybe Mom didn’t always have the answers to the problems I was facing at the time, but she cared enough to walk with me down the gravel road and listen. That was answer enough.
One walk stands out in my mind more than any other. I was older and this was a walk I took alone one day down our gravel road. For years I had run from my calling to be a pastor, but I had found no peace. So many questions, so many fears and uncertainties filled my head as I walked that day. Suddenly, I realized that I was not walking alone. As sure as my mother’s soft voice had spoken to me so many times before on that road, another voice spoke to me that day. It said, “Peace, be still, and know that I am God.” My heart melted, my doubts and fears disappeared. The peace I had been searching for was given to me that day by the One who walks down all the roads of life with each of us. That day I chose to follow, even though I wasn’t sure where the road would lead.
Now, as I drove on through the night to face the uncertainties of whatever crisis was looming with a parishioner, I again found peace in the memories of those walks with Mom down the gravel road. They are cherished memories, for they speak not only of her love for me, but also of the love of the One who promises to walk with all of us and who patiently listens to our every prayer.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
An Unwanted Prelude
I had planned to wait until my folks left to begin my work at old First Church after my ordination service in 1958, when a call came from the hospital. One of the members was dying and her husband was asking for the pastor. I had a moment of panic. I knew what to do after a person died—having grown up in the undertaking business, I had all the training, but somehow I’d never faced the moment of death firsthand. I grabbed a book of prayers and took off, but as I drove along, I thought how useless a book of prayers was. I couldn’t visualize myself reading a prayer while the young husband stood there weeping. No one close in my family had died except my grandfather, so I couldn’t say, “I know what you are going through,” and not have it sound phony.
As I approached the hospital room, a young man emerged, looking stunned. I asked, “Is this the room of...?” He stared at me and said, “My wife just died.” I struggled for words, introduced myself, and suggested we go to the solarium. When we were seated, it was clear that he was not in the mood for conversation, so I said, “Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer.” I think I added the 23rd Psalm. Then I excused myself, promising to see him later when the initial shock had passed.
When I arrived home, my ordination “high” had dropped to a dismal low. “Maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor,” I confessed to my mom. She made the usual encouraging responses, but I was in the doldrums. My parents’ brief visit had been pleasant, but finally the inevitable came as mom and dad took off for home in their pale blue Cadillac.
I went to my study and looked at the list of urgent tasks I needed to do: a lesson for Sunday school, a sermon to prepare, an article for the church paper, and, of course, the call I must make on the poor fellow who lost his wife.
My wife was not sympathetic. “Well, this is what you wanted to do with your life. Don’t complain to me about all the work,” she said as she went to the basement to do a load of wash.
About a half hour later, there was a knock on the door. Two uniformed police officers stood outside. “May we come in?” they asked grimly. Their next question caused me panic: “Do you know a Helen and Vern Ove?” they asked as I sank into a chair. “We’re sorry to tell you this, but Helen and Vern Ove were just killed in an auto accident near the Ohio-Indiana border.”
Just then my wife came back upstairs. “What’s the matter?” she asked, seeing my troubled face. “Mom and Dad were just killed in an accident,” I told her. “Oh, no!” she cried, staring in shock.
I went back to the study to call the council president, and my wife quickly packed our suitcase. As I looked at my desk, suddenly all the vitally important stuff piled there did not seem as important in the light of this terrible news. It put life in a new perspective.
After that I never had any trouble helping people like that young man who lost his wife. I could truly say, “I know what you are going through.” Still, I wondered why the Lord couldn’t have just taught me that in a book or class. Why did he have to give me that horrible experience to teach me?
All through the Bible God used real life experiences to teach people about the facts of life. One passage has stayed with me over the years, Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good to those who love God.”
Robert S. Ove
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
In September 2004 I received a phone call made of joy, fear, and sadness. My sister had delivered her second child, but had also become critically ill. Katie, her newborn, was in intensive care with severe heart defects. My brother-in-law was shattered, with his wife and his newborn baby separated and in two different areas of the hospital.
Our family surrounded my sister and brother-in-law as best we could, waiting and praying. I wanted the God of compassion that I knew so well to save my sister and her baby from sickness and death. I wanted God to show the skill of the Creator at this time of new creation. But where was God? I felt abandoned and duped.
Even as she recuperated in the hospital, my sister was incredibly strong in seeking out the best for Katie. She researched all she could about my niece’s condition. It was rare and there were two top specialists, one of whom was in Atlanta. My sister and her family were just about to move to Savannah, Georgia, due to job transfers. A month later, when Katie was stable, they were well enough to make the move. Prayers were answered as the move put them closer to my parents and to the specialist.
I have experienced answered prayer throughout my entire life, maybe not the way I wanted, but answered nevertheless. Now I began to think about that. Was it answered prayer or was it just life? Where was God in all of this, anyway? Those questions can help us see blessings and a new creation even in the midst of chaos and fear. As I asked the questions, however, I became single-minded, doubting the capacities of God and angry that I was physically so far away. I searched Scripture for comfort, but the task became annoying and daunting and I put down the Bible.
Before long, we received the news that Katie would need open heart surgery. There were no promises about the outcome. My sister was slowly healing from her illness, but seemed to be shutting down emotionally. Her husband kept us informed as best he could.
Soon, Katie’s baptism date was set, and I met her for the first time. She was pink and beautiful! I felt the presence of God’s grace in her. Later, when the time came for her surgery, I traveled to Atlanta to be with my family.
On that day, something changed in me as I watched my family suffer and as Lorie, a friend and pastor, came to pray with my family. Finally I began to know again that in death and in life God is compassionate. I didn’t want anyone to die … my heart hurts even thinking about that now, but I knew as the pastor prayed with us that we were on holy ground. Christ was with us and a new creation would happen. I felt afraid and emotional on the one hand, yet also calm and confident that Christ was in control—in birth, in life, in death, and in new life. The doubts that had plagued me were gone, and I discovered a new trust that all things work together for good with those who love the Lord.
As I look back on those days in 2003, I see God’s presence in each step. Today I experience God’s mercies through my niece, Katie. She has light blond hair that floats in the air when she dances. She loves her older brother, who is quite serious some days and always creative, and she loves her little sister, who is fast and tumbly! Katie is one of God’s heartstrings played among us. Her soul is gentle and kind, and we are blessed even to have had these five years with her.
Anytime I see Katie, who is still a critical heart patient, my doubts go away. Why? Because in her I meet a child of God who isn’t worried about how long she will live, but how she will live ... in ballerina tutus or cheering her big brother on at a game and teaching her little sister how to play “big girl” games. I see a little girl who fights to win her own battles and who wants her own way, a child who is strong in faith and courage and doesn’t even know it. When she touches my face and tells me that she loves me, I know that there is nothing I can do to earn this. God is at work in her. She is a heartstring of God, connecting us with one another, showering us with grace and banishing doubt.
Stephanie Frey is lead pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Spring Grove, Minnesota, and editor of
Written on the Heart.
This article appeared in the March / April 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 2)