Doubt and Faith

“Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

The quote above has always been one of my favorites from Frederick Buechner. (It’s from his book, “Wishful Thinking.”) But of late I’m wondering if like most things one can have too much doubt. I know I’m way too old for a mid-life crisis, but the ants in my pants are feeling more like fire ants in recent days.

My preacher mentality means I usually feel that I need to offer a word of hope when I write about the stuff of life, but for today I just need to vent. I’m depressed about the whole state of the world. The fires in the Amazon, senseless gun violence, divisions in the fabric of society that are deeper and wider than the Grand Canyon—it all feels so hopeless to me. When we desperately need to come together to solve these huge problems we just choose up sides and fire salvos across a partisan chasm that is no more real than the imaginary lines we draw on our maps.

So maybe it’s an old age crisis? And I’m not talking about dying. I’m ok with whatever death means. But the crisis for me is about what kind of world are we leaving for our kids and grandkids? I’m not an end of the age, Second Coming guy. In fact I think Christians who are rooting for the Apocalypse and even encouraging it with conflict-producing radical pro-Israel Middle East policies are not only copping out of our stewardship of the earth responsibilities, they are making matters much worse.

When I reflect on my life and what I’ve done to leave the world a better place than I found it, I don’t like the picture I see. There was a time not too long ago when I felt differently. I thought we were making progress on huge social issues like racism, nuclear weapons, and climate change, but no more. Maybe this is just a pendulum swing and a temporary setback. I truly hope so. I know my time is not God’s time, and I do believe that the life force we call God is bigger than this little planet we occupy. On my worst days I wonder if given our human history of evil and destruction of each other and our world that maybe humankind has outlived its usefulness. What if the universe would be better off without us?

That’s not hopeful or “wishful thinking,” to use Buechner’s phrase. But maybe the key to his quote is the part that says doubt “keeps faith awake and moving.” It certainly does keep me awake at night, but does it keep me moving or does too much doubt paralyze me? Only if I surrender to it! Just moving for the sake of moving is exhausting and useless. But if doubt and big existential questions keep me moving deeper and force me to surrender to God instead of to my feeble human fears, then the ants are doing their job.

I feel like the father in Mark 9 who brought his son to Jesus for healing of a life-long affliction with seizures that threated to destroy him. So it is with the problems threatening to destroy our world. Like the father I lay our broken world at Jesus’ feet and say, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” And like the father. at least today, my best response is, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Speak Truth to Power

In his book “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale” Frederick Buechner challenges preachers to tell the whole truth of life and the Gospel with the closing line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Buechner says, “…in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’” Buechner offers this commentary: “They are not the most powerful lines in the play, but they are among the most telling because in them it would seem that Shakespeare is telling us something about himself and about the way he wrote his play…. In the interest of truth-telling there seems to be no risk Shakespeare is not willing to run as if from the conviction that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”

It is the weight of the very sad times of political and social chaos in our country that demands that this foolish old preacher say what I feel and not what I ought to say.

I have watched President Trump and his band of billionaires violate the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution in his first month in office, and since only a few Republican representatives and Senators have had the courage to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian bully tactics I figure it’s time to add my voice to those who fear the consequences of his heavy-handed ways. I doubt that it will do a bit of good since the system of checks and balances built into our Constitution are currently suspended until enough Republicans realize the mortal danger we and the world are in if the current pattern of oppression and selfish nationalism is allowed to continue.

I continue to hope that sooner rather than later moral courage will override blind party and ideological loyalty in enough members of Congress to prevent the worst of the damage. But in the meantime innocent immigrant families are being torn apart, US citizens are being detained at airports for hours because they have “Muslim” names, and hate crimes and murder are being committed in the name of putting America First. This is wrong in the name of Christian values that proclaim that how we treat the “least of these” is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). More than at any time in 150 years we are in a struggle for the soul of America like the one Lincoln described at Gettysburg “to see if this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
There is hope that Congress will do its job and investigate the Russian connection to the Trump campaign and administration. Those of us who remember Watergate know what a long and painful process that kind of inquiry can be. Whatever the truth is about the firing of General Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s business connections and potential conflicts of interest, and the meddling of the Russians in the electoral process, we need to know the facts before any verdict can be rendered. That investigation needs to occur, but I do not believe we can afford to allow this President to wreak havoc on marginalized people and on our environment for as long as that process will take. And we don’t need to.

We already have ample evidence to take action against this President and begin impeachment proceedings. On January 20 President Trump swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and he has failed to do so in the first month of his Presidency. I am no Constitutional expert, but here’s what the Frist Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers believed those basic freedoms were so central to our democracy that they spelled them out in the very first item in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of a free and open society. Faith-based people and reporters are on the front lines of the truth tellers in our society, and therefore the first people that authoritarian governments try to silence. Yes, I realize the amendment says that Congress shall not abridge those freedoms and so far it’s been executive orders and policies that have banned people from Muslim countries and excluded critical media from White House access. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to haggle over the technicalities while Rome burns, but it seems like common sense to me that if Congress can’t abridge those freedoms then neither can the President.

And it is Congress’s job to provide checks and balances and control a President who violates his Constitutional duties. If they fail to do so then they too are breaking their vow to uphold the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the weaknesses of humankind well enough to know what great power can do to even a well-intended person. We forget at our peril the wisdom of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that President Trump does believe he is doing what is best for the U.S. and what he promised to do during his campaign. The problem is that we do not live in an isolated nationalistic world. Fear is turning people all over the world into self-centered nationalists who are willing to sacrifice the best qualities of humanity for a false sense of security.

Yes the future is scary. It always has been. I wrote after the Brexit vote (“A Lament for Unity,” 6/25/16 post) that the history of centuries of bloody wars in Europe flowed from nationalistic fear, and now that misguided populism is spreading like a virus all over the world. Like it or not modern technology has created a global economy that we cannot put back in the bottle. We need forward-looking vision about how to adjust and thrive in a global community. We can’t retreat back into an isolationist, industrial age that is no more. To do so is only going to fan the flames of hatred and make us less secure, not more.