Below is a sample of the conversations I had (or listened to) in very recent times and which I experienced, in various ways, as ‘difficult’.
(1) I met someone I had not seen or talked with for a very long time. He is a regular reader of this blog and has reacted a number of times to some of the posts. He contacted me and we agreed to meet and to take a long walk together. It was an enjoyable day. My visitor reminded me that I had actually baptized him almost fifty years ago. But he had lost his faith and now referred to himself as an atheist. He had given this careful thought and had very solid arguments why he could no longer believe in God. He was adamant that a God, who does not do a better job of caring for what he allegedly made, is not worthy of our adoration.
(2) A few days ago I was at a birthday party and spent most of the evening talking to two men. One was very open about his faith. The other listened politely, but left us in no doubt that he wanted to have nothing to do with faith and church. And why was this? he was asked. He told us about his experiences, growing up in an extremely conservative home, and about his father who had forced him and his siblings to go to church. He attended church twice every Sunday, until he was able to free himself from this kind of negative religion that was very judgmental and even violent.
(3) Last Sunday I listened to a conversation during an early Sunday morning television program. The host of the program interviewed the father of a teenage child with multiple physical and mental handicaps. The word ‘ faith’ was not used, but many a believer, no doubt, watched it with the same kind of questions that I had. Why do people have to go through such misery?
(4) A few days ago I visited a friend who suffers from Altzheimer. I could not help thinking that this might also, some day, happen to me. My friend has difficulty coming to terms with his situation, but he does not point an accusing finger to God. I could have understood if he argued with God about his fate.
(5) A week or so ago someone, who we have met a few years ago in the USA, visited the Netherlands and stayed with us for a few days. Besides the touristic activities we had some very intense conversations. Her husband had died a few years ago at age 60 in a car accident. She had found a new partner, but he died last year from a massive heart attack. One theme dominated our discussions: Is there really something after death? She has her faith and is a loyal church member, but she keeps wrestling with the question whether it is really true that death is not the end.
(6) This week I visited someone who suffers from ALS. He lives is a care home. Many of my Dutch blog readers will recognize whom I am referring to. He is able to deal in an amazingly positive way with this disease that relentlessly follows its treacherous and destructive course. The bottom line is that he must live between often dementing elderly people, separated most of the time from his wife and family–with virtually no hope of recovery.
(7) And, finally, a total different conversation. It took place after last week’s Sabbath morning divine service, in which I preached. After the service I sat with a group of church members in one of the rooms for our traditional coffee. Two young men came to me and forcefully reprimanded me for the fact that I was drinking coffee. How come I did not pay any attention to our health message? Did I not know what the “spirit of prophecy” says about drinking coffee? As a pastor I should know better and be an example . . . They kept at it for at least ten minutes.
This is just a brief selection of some of the talks I recently had with various persons. I do not in any way claim that having such discussions is unique and many others could make similar lists of the somewhat difficult conversations they were part of. But what can one say in situations as I described above? The standard-replies usually sound hollow and insensitive. “God must have his reasons why . . .” ‘Yes, we must suffer, but in the end all will be well . . .” “In spite of everything, we must keep our trust in God.” And so on. I must admit that I cannot get that kind of answers over my lips. Often, I am at a loss for words, as I try to say something that is more than a series of pious platitudes. Or, I simply remain quiet, since I do not have any good answer.
The only thing I can say is that I want to hold on to my faith in God, in spite of all my questions and uncertainties. I must, however, admit that my faith is something for which I have no solid rational basis. But I do not want to lose this existential certainty of faith. It does me a lot of good and it inspires me when I meet others who, in all their problems and sufferings, are able to hang on to their faith. On the other hand, I can also empathize with those who see their faith gruadually evaporate.
I find it especially difficult to respond in situations such as I mentioned last (Number 7). In such discussions (or “attacks” might be a more suitable word), I tend to become literally speechless. This kind of religion, to me, has nothing to do with Christian faith. It really ruins my day when people want to confront me with this kind of thing. And I can only have sympathy with those who lose all interest in the church when this is the sort of thing that some people feel they must always talk about. It has nothing to do with the faith that we need to deal with the real questions of life.