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See It, Believe It! The Faith & Doubt Issue!

As early as January 30, we will be putting the thirteenth issue of The Mockingbird onto mail trucks to readers like you. We’re incredibly excited for you to see it. It’s colorful, it’s insightful, and believe it or not, despite the heady-sounding theme, it’s as winsome and down-to-earth and heartfelt as all the others. But don’t take our word for it! Jump on it! Over half of our inventory will be out the door Thursday… until then, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Contents page.

The “I Surrender” List

More often than not, pop culture depicts the faith of ordinary people about as badly as it depicts, well, ordinary people. People of faith are always “extra” somehow: ultrasincere, overeager, ubercaffeinated. On the rare occasion, though, you find a source that gets it right.

Last year the podcast StartUp—which normally follows one new business for an entire season—followed a different kind of venture taking the runway: a church plant. Eric Mennel, the journalist covering the story, is himself struggling with faith and decides to join the head pastor AJ on a silent, all-day retreat. AJ recommends Eric try the following journal exercise to jumpstart his prayer time: take three pages and make three separate lists: “I want…” and “I fear…” and “I surrender…”

The first two lists come easy: “I want someone to care for me… I want to fall in love…” And then, “I fear I’m not wanted… I fear there is no God…” But when it is time for his “I surrender” list, Eric stalls, and eventually resigns himself to leaving the page blank. When the day is up, AJ has of course had a splendid time with his best pal Christ. Eric, on the other hand, is despondent. He tells AJ, “The idea of surrendering is a real sticking point for me. I have a lot of trouble trusting God…trusting God will be around…or even if God would be that helpful.”

AJ tells him he can relate. Who can’t? Even if you are the prayerful, retreat-loving type, transcendent experiences of God are probably rarer than you’d like. And meeting people like AJ can often exacerbate the feeling that faith is a wished-for athleticism the flabby multitude will never achieve. Certainty is impressive. Those who “have it,” have it 100 percent, and the doubters who don’t, don’t. This is the popular caricature drawn by old-time religionists and New Atheists alike: that faith and doubt are two rival schools of certainty, and never the twain shall meet.

Faith isn’t certain, though. And neither is doubt. Both are by definition uncertain, always circumscribed by the unknown and unaccountable. This is why I appreciate Eric’s hesitation: I don’t even believe the neighbor when she says it’s recycling day. How could I possibly believe this Jesus nonsense? As the writer Richard Rodriguez says, any honest person going to church is also bringing their “inner atheist” down the communion line.

So, in working up the essays that came to make up this issue, it has become clear that the opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Our friend Jason Micheli tells the story of a Lutheran pastor named Jim Nestingen, a hulking 6’6” Minnesota beer drinker with the belly to prove it. Jim was boarding a plane to fly coast-to-coast when he saw who he would be sharing a row with: a man just as big as him. They awkwardly wedged up against one another and exchanged niceties, preparing for the long haul, basically sitting in one another’s laps. In response to the obligatory job question, Jim said, “I am a preacher of the Gospel.” The man next to him responded loudly, almost allergically, “I’m not a believer!” Jim assured him that was okay, and they kept talking. Turned out that the man had been an infantryman in Vietnam and ever since had carried with him all the awful things he’d seen and done there. As the plane flew from one end of the country to the other, the man dumped his entire story out into the lap of his seat mate.

When he had finished, Jim asked the man, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

The man balked. “Confess? I haven’t confessed anything!”

Jim boomed back, “You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.”

To which the man balked again, “No, that’s all. But I’m not a believer! I don’t have any faith in me!”

Jim unbuckled his seatbelt mid-landing and stood over the man, which caused quite the stir with the flight crew. “Well, that’s quite all right, brother,” he said. “Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. I’m going to speak faith into you.” And he proceeded with the absolution: “In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

Flabbergasted, the man balked again: “You can’t do that!” To which Pastor Jim responded, “I can! And I just did! And I will do it again!” And he did. The man began weeping uncontrollably until finally he began laughing uncontrollably, all the way down the tarmac to the gate. As the two men were grabbing their overhead luggage, Jim grabbed the man’s hand and gave him his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do—you really do—trust and believe it.”

The man did. He called him—no joke—every day until the day he died, just to hear the declaration spoken over him in Christ Jesus. Surrendering to this absolution became something he couldn’t live without.

What if this were the kind of surrender on offer for the rest of us weary, incredulous passengers? What if the good news was actually this good, that no matter how many times you balked, no matter how many misgivings you had about belief, and how much you’d prefer to keep matters in your hands, the forgiveness of sins remained? As the man says to Jim, “It’s just too good to be true. It would take a miracle to believe something so good.”

It takes a miracle for us all. And this is the theme we’re exploring in this issue: in the fluctuations of faith and doubt, the persistence with which God bestows his grace. We have words from Francis Spufford, Sally Lloyd-Jones, and Gordon Marino. We talk existentialism, the Flat Earth Movement, and anger at God. But through it all, this is what we’re getting at: that despite our earnest questions and heavy burdens, and even still our empty “I surrender” pages, Christ is our answer. He has surrendered all, and it is on his account, believe it or not, that we have hope.

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Saturday Night Law: How Humor Convicts the Sinner - Sam Bush

Another breakout from our NYC Conference, from the one and only Sam Bush.

Saturday Night Law: How Humor Convicts the Sinner – Sam Bush from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

The Very Intersection of Love and Death

The Very Intersection of Love and Death

Grateful to share this Ash Wednesday sermon, by our friend Sam Bush: Well, in a beautiful twist of irony, this is the first time since 1945 that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day have coincided. It’s such a bad pairing for a hybrid holiday that it makes you wonder if someone screwed up. The ultimate day […]

Hopelessly Devoted: Mark Chapter Eight Verse Thirty-One Through Chapter Nine Verse One

Hopelessly Devoted: Mark Chapter Eight Verse Thirty-One Through Chapter Nine Verse One

This morning’s devotion was written by Sam Bush. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside […]

(The Tide Decides) When The Hill and Wood Goes

(The Tide Decides) When The Hill and Wood Goes

If the cover of The Hill and Wood’s brilliant new record, When You Go, looks familiar, that’s because lead singer/songwriter Sam Bush and I share not only a long friendship but an affection for the work of Australian artist Jeremy Geddes. Sam somehow got permission for Geddes’s “Ascent”, part of his series of astronaut-slash-deepseadiver-floating-in-space paintings. […]

Bridging Church and Culture: A Conference Breakout Preview

Bridging Church and Culture: A Conference Breakout Preview

Seven years ago, Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, VA renovated a small, single-car garage into a downtown art space and then guess what we named it? We named it The Garage. Since then we’ve hosted monthly art openings, potluck dinners, letter-writing days, some amateur film screenings and literally hundreds of concerts (five years ago, The […]

An Imaginative Festival of Lessons and Carols

An Imaginative Festival of Lessons and Carols

A yearly Christmas pleasure is King’s College at Cambridge’s famous Festival of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, nine lessons and nine carols with a beautiful choir and traditional music. For those who just can’t wait, here’s a bit of the rationale of the King’s College service, followed by an Mbird-friendly, fresh and down-to-earth spinoff to tide […]

The Hill and Wood Lets a Good Thing Grow

With an icy breeze blowing through the East Coast, what say we warm up with a glimpse at the charming video for “Let a Good Thing Grow”, the main single off The Hill and Wood’s excellent, new Opener EP. Everyone is giving birth to something, indeed:

LET A GOOD THING GROW from Charlotte Hornsby on Vimeo.

The rest of the EP is just as breath-taking and exquisitely crafted, packed with beautiful harmonies and gorgeously unwinding melodies. Even after 100-plus listens, “Oil Spill” still gives goose bumps. And the second half of “The First Time” may be the most rapturous music these two have committed to tape (which is saying something).

Full disclosure: The Hill and Wood is led by the ueber-talented Sam Bush, a name you may have seen on here before. Fortunately for us, Sam has also just recorded a side project with bluegrass singer Kathryn Caine, A Very Love and Mercy Christmas. I know it’s too early to bust out the carols, but when you do, this is our pick of the season.

A Band Called Death: What Three Brothers From Detroit Can Teach Us about the Ultimate Trip

A Band Called Death: What Three Brothers From Detroit Can Teach Us about the Ultimate Trip

This comes courtesy of our consummate musician-journalist, Sam Bush. When you think of “punk music” what exactly comes to mind? Skinny white kids in leather jackets?  Iconic album covers like The Ramones or London Calling?  Maybe you don’t have a clue as to what “punk music” is and maybe you don’t care.  I, personally, don’t know a thing […]

Another Week Ends: Francis I and God as Love, Llewyn Davis Is a Failure, More Brene Brown, Questing Against the Wind, the Horror of Breakfast Meetings, Christmas Is Alright, and the Death of the Funeral

Another Week Ends: Francis I and God as Love, Llewyn Davis Is a Failure, More Brene Brown, Questing Against the Wind, the Horror of Breakfast Meetings, Christmas Is Alright, and the Death of the Funeral

1. Reflections on Pope Francis continue, with the increasingly-familiar tension between acclamation for the Pope’s compassionate, grace-focused tone and suspicion, from another camp, concerning his lack of doctrinal rigidity. Enter Rod Dreher, the prolific ex-Catholic writer, who published a while back in Time an essay saying the following: I fear his merciful words will be received not as […]

Faulkner as a Father: Do Great Novelists Make Bad Parents?

Faulkner as a Father: Do Great Novelists Make Bad Parents?

This reflection on literary fatherhood and the “blame game” comes to us from Mockingbird friend Sam Bush. Legend has it that William Faulkner, in response to his 12-year old daughter’s pleading for him to give up drinking, sharply told the girl, “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” It’s a hard story to stomach, especially if your life has […]

The Paralysis of Analysis vs. the Gift of Bad Planning

The Paralysis of Analysis vs. the Gift of Bad Planning

This one comes to us from Sam Bush: I cringe to think of how much time I’ve wasted making decisions. The hours I waste paralyzed in the cereal aisle easily match the time I spend eating cereal (and I always end up choosing Oatmeal Crisp anyways). Personally speaking, the ratio of time spent agonizing over a decision to […]