Saturday, February 19, 2011

Not Sure: A Pastor's Doubt

As a pastor, I sometimes struggle with doubt. That's not all bad. Let me explain by way of a story.

A few years ago, while on vacation, I was camped on the top of a hill overlooking Escondido, California. Off to one side I could see Dixon Lake, a reservoir for San Diego. About a thousand feet below and a mile away was the city. The slope was steep. There were no trees to speak of, mostly chamise, scrub oak and black sage.

This picture demands a second look. Take it, and you will see a wren in the underbrush or a red-tail hawk sailing by. Lower down, in Escondido, a single farm holds out against urban sprawl. At night streetlamps, like strings of pearls, snake up hillsides until they're lost in the curve of some canyon.

The second look is usually richer than the first and full of small surprises. Doubt is like that. Doubt has turned me back to scripture with a curiosity for detail I haven't known since studying for seminary exams. Doubt reveals texts I used to skip over because they were difficult or didn't easily fit the picture I expected to see. Does God love His enemies just as Jesus instructs us to love ours? Does God, the cosmic lover, keep no record of wrongs? Why would we lend without expecting to get anything back? Well, says Jesus, because God the Father is "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." How kind? I wonder. Does He forgive them as often and as much as I am asked to forgive others? I'm not sure, but I hope so, even if that isn't exactly what I was taught in seminary.

But in that sense, doubt is not just something that most Christians struggle with. It is something pastors ought to struggle with, too. Uncritical and unexamined assumptions are often in dangerous and subtle alliance with error, prejudice, or worse. If nothing else, doubt constantly forces all of us, pastors and lay people alike, back again and again to our Scriptures in order to weigh assumptions. And that isn't a bad thing, since those assumptions, like the view from the hill in Escondido or the view from any hill in Northumberland County, often deserve a second look.