During Lent, several members of our congregations have been willing to tell their stories of faith during the Sunday morning “sermon slot”. It has been a huge blessing and I have asked whether I can put them here on the blog… This is one who said “yes”.
When Alan asked if I would give a little talk in a service during Lent I took a long time to get back to him. When I did and he gave me a Sunday I took a long time to get around to writing anything. The reason for this was partly that my name was at the bottom of the list and so I assumed that my date was a long way off. If I had read the email properly I would have realised the list was in alphabetical order according to our first names and that March 1 was before all the other dates in March, by virtue of being, well, March 1.
But I hesitated for another reason, the same reason that I hesitated in getting back to Alan in the first place. I simply didn’t know what I would say. I don’t have a great conversion story and I don’t have answers to theological questions, though I have plenty of questions. I have questions and I have doubts, lots of doubts. And sharing doubts seems disloyal to the God I am trying to believe in and to other believers.
It wasn’t always the case. As a child I had an unquestioning faith, the sort that meant I was shocked when I heard a bishop on the radio saying that sometimes he doubted the existence of God – a bishop! I ask you – the sort of faith that meant I knew exactly why Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice his son because God told him to. Of course God was going to make it all OK. He’s God.
I don’t have that faith now. Like the bishop I sometimes doubt that God exists and I can no more understand how Abraham could tie Isaac up and prepare to kill him than I can understand how a jet plane can fly. In fact I could be taught how a jet plane can fly but there is no way that I could understand how anyone could prepare to murder their child, nor how there could be a God who would ask it, who would test people so cruelly. And exactly what did tying Isaac up like that do to Abraham and Isaac’s relationship, and to Isaac’s psyche?
I know it is all allegory, a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus, in fact I have always believed large parts of the Bible to be allegorical rather than literally true, but it illustrates a problem I have. Not only do I sometimes doubt the existence of God, I no longer find the old interpretations of the Bible to be helpful and I find myself worried by the image of God that I once believed in. And when you start picking at the fabric of belief then there is a danger of everything unravelling. You find yourself asking questions such as ‘What about the virgin birth? ‘Were there really wise men who visited Jesus?’ ‘Who exactly is Jesus?’ ‘If God is a loving God why would he answer some prayers but not intervene to stop something as massive and terrible as the Holocaust?’
And so I started searching, trying to find out what is central to my faith, reading books and entering discussion groups. And what I have found is that I am not alone and that it is Ok to question, it is Ok to use your brain, and it is also OK to take some little steps in faith, or if not always in faith, then in hope. Quite a number of years ago these doubts were beginning to clamour for attention and I asked a previous rector here whether it was it still OK to take communion when I wasn’t sure what I believed. The answer was and remains one of welcome. The Church of England does not get everything right and it does not have all the answers, the Christian church as a whole does not get everything right and does not have all the answers. But it is OK to ask the questions and to seek new interpretations with fit our modern understanding of the world. Some may say, ‘Oh you are just following the wisdom of the world’ but there is no reason why we should not use our brains to try to work out discrepancies in what the Bible says or look at what experience may tell us. At the moment we know very little of the true nature of God, we see through a glass darkly. But while we are peering forward trying to make out the next steps in our faith, it is also Ok to trust instinct and emotion and take a few tentative steps forward towards God.
There is one other thing I have to say for now. Unfortunately, the image of God that I had from when I was very young was one who would happily demand that his people sacrifice their own children, a hard God, a judgemental God, a God for whom I would never possibly be good enough. This is a God that does not fit in with the welcome and acceptance that I have found in the church and I am trying to work out whether this could be a true God. I have been challenged recently to give the God of love a go, to try believing that I am acceptable, and that God loves me.
That will be a step of faith.