His eyes scanned the congregation from the familiar confines of the pulpit that bore the evidence of many a page turn, sweaty palms and coffee spills. His eyes were met by many others; a few hungry for nourishing words, some only mildly amused, others tentative and uncertain, still others hiding veiled pain and hostility. The punishing schedule of producing what amounted to an essay every week, all with clever turns of phrase, well placed jokes, tenderly spoken personal anecdotes and the dizzying exegetical dismount had worn thin his already wavering passion.
He loved these people. Of that there was never any question. They had stood by him after his heart attack two years earlier, bringing meals, smiles, conversation and support to a family, ill prepared for the shattering event. The elders had shown remarkable resilience in the face of the numerous extra duties suddenly thrust upon them as a result of a pastor, now with half the energy of the man they had hired ten years earlier, struggled just to get to work some days. This fact was all the more significant given that a number of these same elders had sat on the committee who hired him and had voted against bringing on “an older man” into an already “older pulpit.”
He had arrived on the doorstep of a deeply struggling congregation. They were no strangers to front-page controversy having weathered a well-publicized lawsuit of one congregant against another in a case of real estate fraud. More recently, a Youth Pastor was sent packing after an affair with one of the youth group girls was discovered. They were a people in need of assurance. Morale had taken a plunge following this moral maelstrom and deep in their collective soul was a gaping wound that mocked all efforts at healing.
A Lectionary preacher for years, his task it had been to find ever-new ways of making familiar passages even more accessible, fresh and original than their last appearance. But this year was proving especially difficult. Nothing was coming easily. The words seemed wooden and stale; flat, black letters on ivory pages with the color drained out in puddles of doubt on his office floor. No amount of hermeneutical insight or exegetical prowess could serve up the feast of Gospel truth he so longed to proclaim. He struggled inwardly with nagging self-questioning that was moving quickly toward self-flagellation. An unbalanced seesaw of unnamed longing tipped him over into a stark reality of disequilibrium that had begun to billow outward in visible waves of frustration and fatigue.
His heart, already physically weak, was suffering from a palpable lack of inner resolve. Had he simply lost interest? How would he recognize that moment when it was time to pack up the circus and move to another town? Was this a sign to simply retire and write? His family, now mostly grown and out of the house, were still so rooted in this community. His lack of personal foothold was increasingly disarming to a man who had taken seriously his sense of duty to their needs. And yet, once again, the moment had come for him to grasp his notes, don his courage like a cheap shirt and shift his bifocals south on his nose to begin the Gospel reading.
But, as he began to read, something mystical, something strangely familiar, re-rooted itself within him. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Free. That’s the word. That’s the word that broke loose the crusty grout that was pasted in scratchy lines upon his spirit. He stood, mesmerized by the passage. He couldn’t get past it.
And that’s the point.
The Paschal Mystery suggests that, before we are released into the freedom of Easter, the often dark and lonely journey of Lent helps us to remember that we are but dust. Made from earth but God-breathed souls we only thrive when that breath is regularly renewed in us and our dust-to-dust relationship with heaven and earth is brought to collective remembrance. Like Job’s confrontation with the God of all mystery, we are not always given the answers to our questions. We’re given better questions. But, if this man’s experience mimics Job’s he’ll be elated that God showed up at all, let alone spoke words of life. Any words at all were gravy to a man starving to know he wasn’t alone in the world.
Our pastor friend still preaches every week. Sometimes it’s really good. Most of the time it’s simply faithful. The gift of grey uncertainty and nagging doubt is a strong indication of our longing for meaning in the mundane. Lent is a good time for allowing ourselves to embrace the unwanted detritus of our lives and lean into the presence of the God who loves in spite of it.
Our Lenten doubt can lead us to Easter freedom.
What are you hopeful for this Lenten season?
What has God taught you through your times of doubt?
Robert Rife is the music and worship minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church (www.westpress.org), a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and writer. He is a recent graduate from Spring Arbor University with an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership and blogs at innerwoven.me.