First Congregational Church
(United Church of Christ)
Rev. Toby Jones, Pastor

101 State Street
Charlevoix, MI 49720

Sermon: When Doubt & Questioning Deliver Us to Stage Two-Complexity

When Doubt & Questioning Deliver Us to Stage Two – Complexity
                  (Based on Deuteronomy 20:10-18 & Luke 6:27-36)
A Message Offered by Toby Jones to the People of Chx UCC on 2/28/21

            Last week I introduced you to the first phase or stage of faith in Brian McLaren’s 4-part typology. It is a phase that every one of us goes through on our faith journey. It is a period of assent to God as the authority figure and is a time in which we desire things to be simple – black and white – and a time when we prefer to live in absolute certainty. McLaren is very careful to point out that these phases aren’t rungs on a ladder or levels we pass in and then out of. Instead, McLaren’s stages of faith are like rings on the inside of a tree trunk. Stage 1 is that first, most interior ring, representing the tree’s first stage of growth. As the tree strengthens and grows, more rings form around that first one, but the first ring is still there and always will be as the tree grows taller, broader, and stronger.
            I have vivid memories and a deep appreciation of my own Stage One faith. It began in Young Life, a terrific para-church organization that introduced me to Jesus in a personal way, grounded me in the disciplines of Bible Study and prayer and connected me to some fantastic people. I was confident, certain Christian.
            Now back in the late 70s homosexuality was a much more closeted phenomenon than it is today. It was no less real or prevalent; it just wasn’t talked about or acknowledged. My stage one faith taught me to condemn homosexuals. I was schooled in the 5-7 verses in scripture that mention it, and learned to use those verses, albeit out of their context, to convince others that homosexuality was a sin. My biblically-based argument felt certain and airtight. But then came an unforgettable conversation with Michael, my small-group Bible Study leader in college. Michael was a spiritual mentor and guide to me. He was a great teacher and leader of our campus ministry at DePauw. One night he asked me to take a walk with him and I could tell he was deeply troubled. After a long, awkward silence, he said, “I’m afraid I might be gay…I don’t want to be gay. I know it’s wrong, and for the last few years, I’ve prayed about it and fought my same-sex impulses with everything I’ve got. But it feels like it’s just something I am, no matter how hard I try.” And then he broke down and cried.
            This was an incredibly difficult step for Michael, coming out to me; but it was also a huge and important first for me. I’d only known homosexuals from a distance, as a “them,” a nameless, faceless group to talk and argue about. But in this moment, I found myself face-to-face with a fellow Christian with a huge heart and a contagious faith. This is the very kind of moment – a moment of doubt, of disorientation, of complexity – that compels one out of the comfortable certainty of Stage One faith and into what McLaren calls “complexity,” Stage Two faith.
            Theologian and College Religion Professor Bart Ehrman writes of his doubts and his recognition of biblical inconsistencies that led him out of a Stage One mindset. “But if Matthew and John were both written by earthly disciples of Jesus, (as I was always taught)…Why do they contain so many contradictions? Why do they have such fundamentally different views of who Jesus was? In Matthew, Jesus comes into being when he is conceived, or born, of a virgin; in John, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom the universe was made. In Matthew, there is not a word about Jesus being God; in John, that’s precisely who he is. In Matthew, Jesus teaches about the coming kingdom of God and almost never about himself (and never that he is divine); in John, Jesus teaches almost exclusively about himself, especially his divinity. In Matthew, Jesus refuses to perform miracles in order to prove his identity; in John, that is practically the only reason he does miracles.” (Jesus, Interrupted)
             McLaren speaks of discoveries of contradictions for him in his chapter entitled Doubt As Crisis. He notes that when he became an “insider” to the church, he began to notice “how petty and shabby religious people can be under their “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords.” I saw how often money reigns, even in the so-called kingdom of God…I was reading the Bible more than I ever had…and with all that exposure, I noticed tensions…I couldn’t yet let myself call them contradictions…I noticed passages where God seemed infinitely loving and kind…and other passages where God seemed horribly cruel and vindictive. Of course, I read books that tried to resolve these tensions, but they often struck me as contrived excuses rather than convincing explanations.” (FAD 25) Remember our two scripture readings for the morning? In one God calls for the absolute slaughter of entire cities, including women and children; and in the other, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. What are we supposed to do with that?
            So I want you to think for a moment about the choice that confronted me in my conversation with Michael and the choice that confronted McLaren as he saw all of these contradictions in scripture as well as in church folk themselves. What are our choices in such moments as Stage One Christians? We can either put off or push away the input that is causing our uncertainty, or we can begin to look at it and engage it more carefully and thoroughly. For me to have rejected my friend Michael and clung to my long-held Biblical arguments and accompanying certainty would have meant putting blinders on, blinders that disregarded Michael’s and any other gay person’s experiences, and blinders that would have led me to ignore Jesus’s commands to be compassionate and not to judge. And for McLaren, to just forge ahead in his ministry, pretending all those contradictions he was seeing weren’t real, would have required him to put some pretty thick blinders on as well. Hopefully, you still remember my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday about how important it is for followers of Jesus NOT to go through life wearing blinders!
            To enter the exciting and challenging second stage of faith requires us to entertain and engage those questions, doubts, and contradictions head on. It can be a little scary. It comes with risks. We have to be willing to give up some pretty comfortable things – things like certainty, an overly simplistic view of the world and how God works, and that sense of always having an easy answer and always being “right.” Stage One is called “Simplicity” “because it revolves around a simple mental exercise of sorting nearly everything into one of two categories,” good or bad, right or wrong, or us vs. them. But at some point, if we’re living with truly open eyes and open hearts, we see that the world is not so simple, and neither is the Bible. Not everything can be so neatly divided into good and bad or right and wrong. I know my friend Michael defied such categories.
            In Stage Two of faith, we move on from wanting authority figures telling us what is right and what is wrong. Instead, we want coaches and mentors who help us learn to figure those things out for ourselves. McLaren compares this to parenting an adolescent. “The best parents of adolescents know how to…act less like police and more like coaches themselves.” McLaren continues, “Sadly, many parents and other authority figures don’t understand how much a young adult needs a new and different kind of leadership from them, so they clamp down with even more force than before, trying to reassert control. This authoritarian move is especially common,” McLaren concludes, “among those parents who have never outgrown Stage One themselves.” (FAD, 50)
            Stage Two faith is a lot about freedom…freedom to think, freedom to question and doubt, freedom to move outside some of the well-intentioned boundaries that were set for us in Stage One. McLaren speaks of this very freedom in a story he tells about the first time he attended a Bible Study that wasn’t led by a Stage One teacher. He writes, “We learned different methods of studying the Bible for ourselves. If I asked a question, instead of giving me the one right answer, the leader would tell me three or four ways different Christian groups had answered my question, leaving me space to choose which made the most sense to me.”(FAD, 52)
            When we enter Stage Two, it is exciting, freeing, and filled with new possibilities. One way that a lot of us exercise our Stage Two freedom is with lots of spiritual activities: reading books about God and faith, plugging into Bible studies and prayer groups, and attending retreats and conferences. The Stage Two person of faith is hungry for input and often engages in all manner of spiritual endeavors. And this makes sense, because now that the person of faith is accepting and engaging questions and doubts, he needs more input in order to sort all this complexity out. That wasn’t a need back in Stage One. While the Stage One Christian expresses her faith by rigidly adhering to certain beliefs, the Stage Two Christian expresses her faith through activities of a spiritual nature designed to equip her for a more complex world.
            But as exciting and freeing as Stage Two faith can be, it can also be exhausting. It can feel a bit like being on a treadmill, for there is always another book to be read, another Bible Study to attend, or some new 5-point-plan for spiritual growth. McLaren estimates that he was in Stage Two of his faith journey for over 20 years, and, as we mentioned last week, some people spend their entire lives in Stage One. There is clearly no proscribed time-period for each stage. Again, thinking about the rings on a tree, remember that those rings are of many different widths. Growth is not an even, predictable enterprise. The important thing is to keep growing and expanding as Christians, remembering with gratitude that we all carry our previous stages with us.
            So Stage 2 Faith is an exciting and challenging phase of growth. We have less clear-cut answers but more tools with which to handle a more complex world. But even this stage is not the end of the road for the follower of Jesus. Come back next week to hear about Stage 3, a stage McLaren aptly calls “Perplexity.” Thank you for your attention and for taking this journey with me.