I was sitting in the carpool line listening to NPR when I heard the story of a Methodist pastor who left her parish and later announced she was an atheist. As I listened to her story, I quickly experienced a dozen reactions: judgment of her for not discussing any of her personal struggle with her congregation, personal rejection that yet another thinking person could not reconcile reason with faith, and jealousy that she could walk away from a vocation that is an all-consuming way of life . . . and be lauded for it.
The next day, not yet having heard the NPR story of the outgoing clergywoman, a Presbyterian pastor friend shared this quote by Tomas Halik, “The real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient . . . . Faith is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God’s absence. . . . Patience with others is love./ Patience with self is hope./ Patience with God is faith.” Clearly, I do not know the full story of this former Methodist pastor or the substance of her struggle and journey that led her to no longer find truth in the Christian tradition. My desire here is not to speak to her choices or her journey, but I do stand beside her as a doubter and seeker of truth. The questions she has raised are not new or frightening to me. If anything, I wonder sometimes what keeps me within the fold and what prompts me to continue rethinking and reinterpreting the way I understand the story of God.
God knows, I am impatient. Often. Impatient with my children, impatient with myself, impatient when trying to figure out what the next thing will be for work or school or home or dinner. I work consciously to resist my urge to know all and hurry through all. Being aware of my impatience is a good task for my life in the church, as well. Anyone who is having honest conversations about the future of the church in North America is talking about dwindling congregations and gigantic campuses to maintain. We are shifting from doing the old programs of a church week to a more fluid notion of understanding ourselves as living within a story as local faith communities that live out a theology together. We easily grow impatient when wondering what the next step will be, and that impatience can prevent us from fully seeing and knowing the present. What we have known as church for years is dying, and much of it really needs to perish.
But as I sit with my honest questions and ponder the complicated relationship between my deepest fears and deepest hopes, I remain a person of faith in a God who moves and creates and weaves a story. For weeks now I have reread the introductory words from Lauren Winner’s newest book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis. Her words on faith and doubt speak to the impatient, unknowing, waiting place of life and ministry and risky theism. Winner nudges us toward understanding doubt as an element of faith, as Paul Tillich suggested. She writes of the doubting place:
“[I]n those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me.” (preface, page xiv)
I want to find out how the story ends. I want to know how God’s story will continue to write my own. I really do want to jump ship sometimes, but I just can’t do it. I’m too impatient! I want to find out how that next chapter goes.
Elizabeth Mangham Lott lives in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to her mothering job, she also serves as associate pastor at Richmond’s Westover Baptist Church.