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Psalm 22:23-31 and Mark 8:31-38

An Accidental Pilgrim

I came to Durham, England, in the summer of 1988, incognito, leaving my clerical collar behind in Scotland. I was considering leaving the Christian ministry. I took a summer course in English Literature at the university in this ancient cathedral city, thinking seriously about switching from the Ph.D. Program in Theology to Literature.

The first days in Durham only heightened my vocational confusion, but the roots of my confusion extended through months and years of doubt and uncertainty. They culminated one Sunday afternoon in a conversation with my wife, Deborah.

We had just returned home from church services at the historic Beechgrove Church where I served as assistant pastor. Our children romped up the stairs to their rooms while we went to our bedroom to change. As Debbie slipped off her coat and hung it in the wardrobe, I took off my clerical collar, studied it in my hands for a moment, and tossed it onto the bed.

I looked at Debbie and I said, “You know, I don’t really believe any of it any more.”

She looked at me sadly and said, “I know.” And so began the conversations that led to my summer studies at Durham, testing the waters of a new vocation.

I was miserable. What, after all, is a minister to do if he or she no longer believes in God? I couldn’t pretend. And I couldn’t proceed with business as usual, not if I had any integrity. What I didn’t take account of at the time – didn’t realize till much later – was that the misery I felt was a gift of grace. It compelled me, in the end, to submit myself to the God whose existence I no longer believed in.

And so, one late afternoon, I found myself on a kneeler in the nave of Durham Cathedral, feeling an inner turmoil and conflict that is really impossible to describe. I prayed, “God, I don’t believe you exist, but we really need to talk.”

Seldom in my experience does life turn on a dime. I am as doubtful of sudden conversions (Saul’s included) as I am of faith untested. I didn’t “lose” my faith overnight, and it didn’t “return” overnight. In fact, with the benefit of years of hindsight, I now realize that I had simply outgrown the faith I had and was searching for a deeper faith. Maybe we’re more like snakes than doves after all, needing to shed skin periodically as we grow.

Later my external examiner in the Ph.D. viva voce at Aberdeen, the late Colin Gunton, observed that it appeared to him I believed in a God who looked a lot like a cozy Victorian family sitting around in their parlor. But at the end of another five or six years of disciplined reflection, I discovered a God much too big for even a universe to contain.

Maybe I was being taught a lesson similar to the one Peter was taught by Jesus in our story from the Gospel of St. Mark this week.

Peter simply could not allow for the possibility that Jesus, his beloved friend and teacher, the man he believed so far beyond ordinary goodness that he must be the Son of God, could be shamed and rejected and executed on a criminal’s cross. Peter couldn’t imagine this possibility. He told Jesus he wasn’t bound for a cross. And when Jesus turned to Peter, Jesus saw in the face of his own dear friend the evil adversary for a moment and felt the temptation from the wilderness not to endure the life to which God called him. But Jesus also saw in an instant that his dear friend and disciple Peter didn’t have a God big enough to handle what life was about to throw at him. Jesus scolded Peter harshly, but he must have pitied him even more, because he knew what lay in store for Peter in the coming days.

Leonard Cohen famously sang that “love is not a a victory march; it’s a cold and it’s a lonely Hallelujah.” So sometimes is faith.

For full Lenten Devotional Guidebook:  “Desert Places, Hidden Springs” click here.

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