Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Penguin Sex, and Faith amidst Doubt

I went through a really rough patch in my faith-life a few years ago. We were having all sorts of trouble and in-fighting in our church at the time, and it all weighed on me greatly. I was struggling to see God's plan--absolutely bewildered and frustrated and feeling like nothing was going the way it should have been. I felt a little lost, to be honest. Not far from God, exactly, but unsure of whether He cared what was happening.

As much a crisis of faith as I've ever gone through, I think.

I read a LOT during that time. The Bible, of course, but lots of other books too. I read classics by Oswald Chambers and C.S. Lewis.  I read things from emergent folks like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. Much of it was affirming and helpful. Some of it was schlocky.

A friend recommended Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. Wow, that was a help--just the sort of encouraging thing I needed. So many questions raised in that book about what faithful Christian living really looks like. I love the subtitle: Nonreligious thoughts on Christian Spirituality. That was what I needed at that time. I needed to rethink my faith walk without using all the usual "Christianese."

I listened to a lot of music at that time too. Relient K's "Getting Into You" was popular for me--I think I hit 200 plays in my iTunes for that song in one year's time. Another with a high play count was a pretty powerful song by Andrew Peterson on the City on a Hill album, The Gathering. The song is entitled "Holy is the Lord" and it basically tells the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, the child of the promise. That song really resonated with me; I felt like I was being asked to sacrifice so much of what I loved and knew and understood about the church during that time.

I was still hurting. I was still confused. And, of course, it was my turn to lead staff devotions at school in the midst of all this heartache.

What would I do? Pretend that everything was fine, share some contrived devotional from Chicken Soup for the Soul, sing a few songs, and pray? Sugar-coat the hurt and fake it?

I decided to go for honesty. I decided to be real about my doubts and confusion. I didn't name names or get too specific about the problems at church, but this was outside of the norm for our devotional times as a staff to be sure.

I started by sharing that I was having some real struggles in my faith at the moment. Not that I was walking away from God, but that I just didn't understand what God was doing, and that I was having a hard time following His leading, because I didn't feel like I could see where He was going.

Then I talked about all the reading I had been doing lately--the Book of Habakkuk (what a lovely cry of heartache for those in situations they don't understand!), Velvet Elvis, the Book of Jeremiah (talk about a guy who felt like God had given him a raw deal!), A New Kind of Christian, and the others. And then I mentioned one passage from Blue Like Jazz that had really made a difference for me. Not that it fixed everything, but that it helped me with some perspective. And then I read it to them--a section of Chapter 5 from the book, which is titled "Faith: Penguin Sex."

In this section of the book, Miller--in his typical, storytelling way--explains how penguins find mates, and then lay eggs, and then the females take off for a long time while the males tend the eggs. And then, somehow, miraculously, the females return just in time for the eggs to hatch. And the end of the bit is the clincher, where Miller explains to his friend how seeing this documentary on penguin reproduction habits helps him explain his faith in Jesus:

"It's just that I identified with them. I know it sounds crazy, but as I watched I felt like I was one of those penguins. They have this radar inside them that told them when and where to go and none of it made any sense, but they show up on the very day their babies are being born, and the radar always turns out to be right. I have a radar inside me that says to believe in Jesus. Somehow, penguin radar leads them perfectly well. Maybe it isn't so foolish that I follow the radar inside of me."

I was feeling very emotional after sharing this with my colleagues, but I went on with the last bit of my planned devotional. I mentioned that I was also listening to "Holy is the Lord" by Andrew Peterson a lot lately. I reminded them of the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. What an amazing faith Abraham must have had! I explained how I always thought of Abraham as some sort of paragon of faith, not troubled by the sorts of doubts and confusion I was currently feeling. But then I started listening to this song, and felt like Abraham must have had his doubts. I played the song for them with the lyrics on display so they could understand what I mean. I'd encourage you to give the song a listen a minute...

By the line in the chorus, "Lord, help me, I don't know the way," I was tearing up. I was a little embarrassed to be crying in front of all my colleagues--not going to lie about that--but it was sort of cathartic too. To be that honest, that real about my emotions and thinking and faith struggles; it was really what I needed at that moment.

After the song was over, I pulled it together enough to close in prayer. And I sat there as my colleagues hopped up to finish their last minute preparations for the day. ("The students are going to be here soon...must be ready...")


In a moment of sheer grace, a duo of friends came and sat down beside me. They put an arm around me. They prayed for me. They affirmed my doubt and struggle and wondering and frustration. They were being the Body of Christ for me. In that moment when I needed someone who wasn't judging or just rushing past, they took the time to minister to me in my hurt.

As I reflect on what teaching Christianly looks like, I think faith development is a big part of it. And not just for the students. I hope that all Christian schools are places where we can acknowledge the brokenness of our sin-riddled world, places that encourage faith amidst doubt, and where we can all learn to grow in grace and be the Body of Christ.


  1. This is so awesome. you shared your heart.... and gave tools to deal with the times we may be feeling this way as well. thank you for your honesty, and your tools. you ROCK! :) grace brouwer

  2. Amen! Amen! Thanks, Dave. Very special blessing today.
    Judy Steidl

    1. Thanks, Judy. I'm in a much better place now, four years later...but it's still sort of cathartic to write about the experience. I hope it encourages others to be honest about their struggles and doubts as well. Peace to you!