Maybe it was Peter Boehler.
The sails ripped in half and ocean water roared on to the main deck. A terrifying storm grew as John Wesley voyaged from London to bring the Gospel to colonists and natives in America. While Wesley panicked that he wasn’t ready to die in the midst of chaos, he noticed a group of German pietists who were calmly singing Psalms. And in that moment he realized that he lacked faith—sure and abiding trust in God: “I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief, and that the gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful for me.” Thus began Wesley’s quasi-Puritan spirituality, as he lived in a constant state of anxiety, compulsively searching for assurance of salvation and his name in the book of life.
A couple years later, Wesley arrived back in London where he befriended a group of German Moravians who would counsel him through his existential crisis. The Lutheran pietists taught him faith was black or white—you have it or you don’t. And true Christian faith is always accompanied by a sense of peace and well-being. Peter Boehler was one of the Moravians, who counseled Wesley, and he spoke little English, but Wesley and Boehler discovered that they could talk freely in Latin.
Wesley asked him, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?"
Boehler, who equated faith with certainty, responded,
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
It’s pithy—fake it till you make it—keep drinking it until you develop the taste. It worked for Wesley; he preached faith until he had a ‘heartwarming experience.’ And now, it’s a very Methodist thing to say, like ‘do all the good you can’ or ‘spread Scriptural holiness.’ If there’s a caricature of Methodism, it’s that we love to try harder; we flirt with Pelagius, who we’ve been forbidden to see, but still secretly love to sneak into our upstairs window.
Until the certainty doesn’t arrive immediately and you wonder whether you put in enough effort, left no better off than the poor soul whose child wasn’t saved because she didn’t give ten percent of her monthly income. Even Wesley succumbed to self-deprecating thoughts and great anxiety as he wondered why God’s Spirit hadn’t given him a ‘certainty of being in a state of salvation.’ Was there something more he needed to do? I wonder if this kind of damaging ‘all or nothing’ shame should be categorized as a disorder and treated by a psychologist.
It strikes me as spiritually and psychologically dangerous to step into a pulpit to preach the the contents of what you can't trust yourself. Sure, there are mornings that a pastor doesn’t want to step behind a pulpit because the incarnation seems about as rational as a god who throws thunderbolts from the sky. I’m just not sure it’s sustainable over the long haul, week after week. Imagine a scenario where a counselor tells a spouse with trust issues to keep trying. One day it will click.
“Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” is a recipe for isolation, as if there’s not enough isolation and loneliness embedded in the work of ministry, or possibly detachment and cynicism. It could also give way to a culture of fundamentalism: let’s not risk being honest with one another. It’s easier to play the game of show and not tell— smile on the outside and cry on the inside. Everyone believes. No one questions. Because if you do voice your feelings, then the whole house of cards might come crashing down. It works until the water gets too hot and everything boils over. And thousands of clergy put on their robes and open up Scriptures and believe in no God whosoever.
In my case, faith was strengthened because I took a year off from preaching. Though I never left a faith community or the disciplines of discipleship, I took time apart to receive the gift of time spent in deeper probing and intentional thinking. Still, it wasn’t a period of quietism, or ceasing all good works and waiting on the Lord to deliver assurance of salvation or Christian sanctification. That’s not quite right, either. We'll never have it all together. Part of the Christian vocation is to act in ways that are beyond your own inclinations and belief structures. "Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not," says Flannery O'Connor. Don't give up on faith; it's a noun and a verb, a gift and a practice.
But there’s a difference between practicing the Christian disciplines and standing behind a pulpit trying to summon water from a dried up well each week.
Doubt and distrust aren’t healed with repression, locked away in the basement of a heart, but by opening up windows and airing out thoughts with a community you can trust—the saints of the present and past. It’s the kind of example pastors should set for the laity. In a recent Bible study, we sat down to talk about the Apostle’s Creed and one parishioner asked, “Am I supposed to believe that?” Even better, someone might say—'am I supposed to trust that God?' Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s open up the Scriptures and brew up something more faithful . There are degrees of faith, Wesley later believed, and maybe there are different shades, too.
“When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything but what God has revealed to me."
God longs for us to feel the spirit bear witness to our souls that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). So what if instead of telling folks to try harder, pastors admit the brokenness and create a space for doubts to float to the surface? We stop telling ourselves, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith” and give thanks for the degree of faith that we have, whatever it is, as we press on to greater sanctification by taking time apart when we need it: advocating for more sabbaticals, honoring sabbath rest, creating honest friendships, embarking on a personal leave. The difficulty is that clergy can be punished by their denominations for this kind of transparency, though maybe not explicitly. It’s worth it, even if you don’t climb a rung on the ecclesial ladder, you’ll save your soul.
Or better yet, we can throw away every Christian cliche.
It can happen almost anywhere—debating with your spouse about where to eat or reading an article about the job satisfaction in a particular line of work. It’s the rush of anxiety that life carries too many choices. Most recently, my child said, “I died” after playing a video game on the iPad, and it was enough to make me rethink everything I know about my life and the way I’m living it. Kierkegaard (under the guise Haufniensis) pictures a man standing at the edge of a cliff who has a chilling fear of falling. More terrifying still, there’s an impulse that he might actually want to jump. Dread and angst rise to the surface. Such is the ‘dizziness of our freedom,’ whether your in the grocery choosing between whole wheat and white or choosing whether and how to exist.
It’s freedom, says Kierkegaard, that’s intricately connected with our anxiety—we have infinite numbers of decisions, complicated today by a strong case of FOMO (fear of missing out), and a vast sea of avenues to becoming a true subject and a realized self. He goes on to say that this dizziness of freedom is part of the human condition. The Judeo-Christian tradition expressed it through the tale of Adam and Eve who are bestowed the possibility of eating forbidden fruit, initiating an awareness of good and evil. It’s the ambiguity of freedom that predisposes and causes the sin.
Child psychologists know that excessive toys and trinkets produce overly anxious children. Simplify their lives, they say. No paralysis. It’s too bad that we grow and graduate from a curated number of trinkets to an abyss of possibilities. There are ways, of course, to mitigate or deflect the damage as we grow older: Steve Jobs wore a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers every day. I mindlessly frequent the same coffee shop to avoid deciding between the plethora of good pour overs on Haywood Road. Less benignly, some shut off decision completely by living entire lives running from the anxiety of choice, mindlessly following whatever shepherd is loudest while never questioning the customs, social conventions that are handed down.
But Kierkegaard thinks that’s the wrong instinct. We lose our humanity when we only throw pills at the anxiety or avoid it at all costs. One day you’ll be driving in your car when you come to the realization that you’ve been living a lie—that your existence is masquerading as a life—and you’ve never actually chosen to really live and die for anything.
It might be counterintuitive, but Kierkegaard says to embrace the anxiety; it’s the disease and the cure.
“One would have no anxiety if there were no possibility whatever,” writes Kierkegaard. But there is possibility, and it’s the possibility that makes us human—we have the ability to decide our lives and to become a self. He goes on to say, “If man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in anxiety. Since he is both beast and angel, he can be in anxiety, and the greater the anxiety, the greater the man.” One must deliberately enter into it and look for the generative possibilities. We alone have the possibility to pursue a specific life, seek a particular adventure, choose among the endless avenues—take a leap of faith and become a true subject.
And until you make that choice, or act on a defining commitment, there’ll be paralysis or aimless wandering at best. At the worst, existential despair (conscious or unconscious) and a sickness in your spirit.
And that’s a gift.
And maybe this is why anxiety is so central to Christianity: it’s about choosing the persons we want to become before the world chooses for us. It’s the catalyst for assuming a proper relation to the Eternal—or, at least the prerequisite to our recognition of our absolute need of it. We take the leap away sin and discord into the kinds of creatures that we were created to become. Then, in an instant, literally the ‘eye blink,’ there’s a moment when the eye opens and eternity intersects with temporality. “In the instant, [the individual] becomes aware of the rebirth, for his previous state was indeed one of ‘not to be.’” The haze of confusion burns away and there is subjective clarity. This moment of vision bestows a defining commitment, relativizing all others, endowing a true identity.
To live is to be anxious, but it’s your choice on how you harness it. Ignore it. Follow the herd. Or, find a defining commitment and enter the strain between who you are and who you might become.
For “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.”
Next time you find yourself standing at the edge of a cliff, don’t freeze or take a step back. Choose to take the leap into personhood. Do it every day. Or better, open your eyes to the moment of transfigured vision—assume a posture of being and an orientation of the mind that is shaped by Jesus Christ, God incarnate.
Near the end of one of our five day walks, I was reminded that we could drive the length of the trail in about an hour. Thanks, but my blisters had informed me that a few days prior.
My motto is typically "Why walk when you can drive?" Netflix binges. Another hot take on Twitter. Self-driving cars? Even better.
But if you drive, you’ll never stop to rest. You’ll miss the picturesque rivers, the hidden waterfalls, and dense forests with soaring pines and rhododendron thickets. If you drive, you might not be slow enough, or tired enough, to appreciate what’s around you. For a year, I went every Friday into the woods (this was BK, or before kids, of course) to wander and meander, until like Forest Gump, I’d say, “I’m pretty tired, I guess I’ll go home now.”
Theologian Kosuke Koyama suggests that some things God can teach us only very slowly, at a walking pace. Scripture is a story about people who take small, baby steps over a few thousand years. In the beginning God walked with Adam in the cool of the evening. It’s Moses who notices the burning bush on a stroll up the mountain Horeb. Jesus walks among his people through the countryside, the city, even on water. He attends to the impoverished and down-and-out at a pace slow enough to notice Zacchaeus, the wee little man, up in a tree. He waits three days to be resurrected. But we forget that even bread, which is vital sustenance, takes time to rise.
The prophet Micah tells his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We cross-stitch it on fabric and print it on plastic picture frames. Be merciful, be compassionate. And yet, I’m still struck by this last phrase: walk humbly with God. He could’ve said run. But God says, ‘walk humbly,’ which could also be translated— “walk attentively.” In other words, pay attention. Here’s a question we’d do well to think about: what does it mean to walk attentively with God in a society that wants to run everywhere it goes? Koyama says, “God walks three-miles-an-hour because that’s the speed of our walking and God walks beside us in love…And the speed of love is slow.” A marriage. Not a hot romance.
The Israelites spent forty years lost, walking in the desert with no compass. But God walked with them, teaching them about justice and kindness. Bread—manna—was provided each morning and God told the people to take what they needed and nothing more. While Pharaoh’s economy was structured on wealth and accumulation, the Israelites began the curriculum of redistribution and the common good. God’s people learned how to rest, after spending their lives in an economy that founded their worth on their work—laying bricks and mortar. The ‘school of the soul’ had a course in walking and it taught them compassion.
The point of walking, of course, is to slow down, but that’s too simple. It’s also about justice and kindness. The three are bound together. Justice and mercy only take place when you’re walking humbly with God. Before there is justice and kindness, there is attentiveness and listening—there is walking. Richard Niebuhr says we have to ask, “What is going on?” before we ask “What must we do?” There’s an urgency to our faith—we have the words of life—but we’re not sure how to share it.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons the church is lame is not apathy, but lack of humility and attentiveness. We want do justice and love kindness, but we don’t do the hard work of walking with God and God’s people. Our lives are self centered—we get caught up in our own lives and schedules, moving from one thing to the next, that the needs of our community are part of the blurry background that we race past. Or, maybe it’s the opposite. We throw ourselves at every opportunity and get spread too thin. There’s no staying power.
Walking is a discipline; it takes practice to slow down and become attentive. If we take the time to listen to each others’ stories, share a table with a neighbor, then God will guide us toward greater understanding—justice and kindness. Start walking in your neighborhood and you’ll see hurt, pain, and struggle—you’ll notice that one who is out of firewood, or the woman who needs her gutters cleaned, or the man who hasn’t had a visitor in months. Then, start walking further toward the outskirts of the neighborhood, seeking out the very people you understand least. I most often change my mind, and the way I live, after I've tried to walk in another's shoes. It's the best way to start taking steps in a new direction.
Saint Augustine says, “Solvitur ambulando.” It means, “it is solved by walking.” “Well,” you might be wondering, “what needs to be solved?” And that’s it...if you don’t know what needs to be solved, then you better start walking.
Thirty miles, scarce water, four 6,000 foot peaks, one of the most difficult trails in North Carolina. Two nights. Or, a perfect through-hike for a group of first timers.
My wife and I, along with two best buddies from Durham, hiked the Art Loeb Trail a few years back. The trail follows the Davidson River, ascends Pilot Mountain, cuts over to the peaks in Black Balsam, shoots down through the Shining Rock Wilderness, and then descends Cold Mountain into the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. One review of the trail notes, “If you are a glutton for punishment you will enjoy every steep step.”
Turns out we weren’t.
On the first night we were so tired that we set up camp in the middle of the trail, which is generally frowned upon in the outdoors world. We’ll talk about the bear bags another time. The thirty pounds on my back were heavier than I imagined and the thirty miles ascending and descending peaks were more grueling than I envisioned. Not to mention that the rain that never stopped falling; we traversed drenched trails, in water-logged socks, sleeping in moist bags. But I hear the views are beautiful. I mean, don’t ask me, because I wouldn’t know. The dense clouds and fog stole that from us.
We discovered the reason Shining Rock is called a wilderness. Only a few miles away from our vehicles and mere hours away from beer and pizza, we got lost. The white blazes had eroded or were concealed by brush. Maybe there weren’t any altogether. We stared at the map for hours, took a few steps, and stared a little more. The worst part of being lost wasn’t the flash of fear that we’d end up on the evening news or that we’d run out of water and get seriously hurt. But it was the frustration that we were living out of control. The time-table we devised and the vision we shared for this great adventure had to be discarded. We had to improvise—and each step brought with it the nagging anxiety that we weren’t going the right direction.
When I was a kid I trampled through the neighborhood woods with no destination or purpose. I’d get lost until I’d find something worth discovering. At this point in life I’d rather stay on the trail than get a spider web plastered against my face. I go into the woods with a purpose. I hike to a particular destination, with enough water and fuel for the journey. I turn around and go home. Never step off the well-worn path. And there’s a really good reason to stay on the trail: it keeps you from trampling over precious natural resources while preserving the area for future use. Even moving a rock can cause irreparable damage to time varnished pieces of granite.
It’s also safer. Life is difficult enough without choosing more ambiguity. We can wake up lost having never even left the house. Lose your job. Divorce. A spouse or child. Lose your mind. Fill in the blank. There’s so much wandering in our world. There is a record number of refugees in the world, some 65 million, who are forced into wilderness wandering. Why would we voluntarily choose more wilderness? There’s no GPS system and advanced technology for that kind of lost.
Maybe Jesus is attractive for this reason—he promises our lives a clear destination and boundaries with neat delineations. An end to all of the aimlessness. Christianity, we think, is about the straight and narrow. A lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. A house built on the rock and the foundness to all of our lostness. A good Christian follows the rules, never veers off into a life of danger or risk. Fine thing, this Christianity, a calm and predictable life within the four walls of the church. The kind of religion that will produce good Americans with good jobs, two kids, and a hefty retirement.
Christians, well, we can’t say much about Christians except they’re the kinds of people who stay on the trail.
It’s supposed to be the opposite, isn’t it?
I grew up in a Methodist church, went to youth group, four years in college, then three years in seminary, and now I’ve entered with work force with a wife and two kids. That sounds remarkably simple. But I didn’t end up where I am because I followed a map. I didn’t create a time-table, put together a packing list, and head out. I was pushed into the forest, one step after another, until I was in so deep that I had no choice but to keep walking. The only compass I could find pointed me to the church. And even then, I was sure the compass was broken.
God said, “Go that way.” And I said, “Where’s the trail? I don’t see the markers, the brush has grown over them.”
This is the story of many—from Moses to Noah to Jonah to the Twelve Disciples. God tells Abram, ‘Put everything in your rucksack and start walking. Go, until I say stop.’ God rarely works predictably. Nor, does God usually take the fastest route from here to there. God takes longer, oftentimes more difficult paths to get something done. Until, finally, God gets of His trail to walk on ours—becoming a poor, migrant Jew who walked the long agonizing path to the cross. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Isn’t there another, easier trail?” Nope. But even the most horrific trail ended with healing—salvation and resurrection.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that getting lost is a deliberate practice we should pursue. It reminds us that we aren’t fully in control, nor should we strive to be. God doesn’t promise a life without a little wandering. You will get lost, fall and sprain an ankle. Sometimes you'll get by with manna, just enough to survive. But if God has called, then that means that there’s something out beyond the next mountain peak. There might even be a land flowing with milk and honey, We cut through the forest to find out.
I should mention that we made it out of Art’s hell house. God, who is always faithful, sent us two kids smoking cigarettes and carrying machetes. This was better than nothing, because they would either point us in the right direction or kill us. And either way it would be salvation. We asked for directions and they lifted up their machetes and pointed us back toward the trail. Sometimes angels do smoke tobacco and carry swords.
We descended down Cold Mountain and reached our cars.
The journey was hard, nothing like we planned or would have chosen, but that’s life, isn’t it?