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The Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson The Rev. Dr. Peter L. Samuelson

The Rev. Dr. Peter Samuelson is a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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Lord, I don't believe, help my unbelief!

May 08, 2009

I was having one of those "driveway moments" well known to National Public Radio (NPR) listeners.  It is when you are driving home listening to the radio and catch a news or story program that is not quite done by the time you arrive at home, so you sit in the driveway listening until the end. 

The story was by Dan Savage, a well-known writer and sex advice columnist.  The program was "This American Life," and the theme of the storytelling for that evening was "Returning to the Scene of the Crime."  For Savage the scene of the crime was the Catholic church (he assures us no Catholic children were harmed in the development of this story).  The "crime" for him was belief -- a belief that God exists -- a belief in an afterlife.   You see, he had lost the faith of his youth when, at the age of 14, he realized he was gay and because he knew that experience was good and true, he reasoned the Catholic teaching about the evils of homosexuality must be false.  He then decided that if the church was wrong about that one thing, it was probably wrong about many things -- even the "big thing" -- the existence of God.   So he did like so many do when they find out the church can be wrong about some things, they throw the baby (faith) out with the bathwater.  

A year ago his mother died.  Savage now finds himself "slipping into Catholic churches at odd times," to "think" about his mother and the possibility that she, as she had promised him on her deathbed, would "see him again."  But not just any Catholic church will do for him.  It must be the old fashioned kind of his youth with stained glass, votive candles and plaster saints.  He says he now goes there  two or three times a week, "like an addict drops by a crack house, for a fix, to deaden the pain, by losing myself momentarily in the fantasy that she lives, and that we will be together again."  (Listen to the whole story at  Warning, there is a mild expletive that was deleted in the radio show broadcast but was retained in the podcast).

When the father of a boy who had (what Mark calls) an unclean spirit comes to Jesus to ask him to heal his son and Jesus tells him "all things can be done for the one who believes," the father responds, " I believe, help my unbelief!"  Mark 9:23-24

Savage ends his story with these words: "If I were the kind of person who could believe, I would believe, but I am not that kind of person.  (expletive deleted)!"  His experience was quite the opposite of the grieving father in Mark 9:  in the midst of his unbelief,  he longed to believe. Moreover,  I was fascinated that he found comfort in being physically present in a church, the place where he used to believe, the place of his youthful faith.  But his longing was triggered by more that just a physical place. He reports that the liturgy of the last rites at his mother's deathbed gave him comfort.  The bedside prayers which the priest led the family in "filled a terrible silence and solemnized an awful moment."

We might say the same about belief.  For when facing death, whether our own or that of a loved one, we face "a terrible silence."  In the midst of these and other such "awful moments" we strain to hear the voice of God but our reason will not allow it, so we often hear only sounds of silence.  Faith fills the "terrible silence" and speaks a word to our hearts that our reason cannot speak, "I am with you always."    Faith perceives what the mind denies but the heart longs for -- the very presence of God.  

The church may be an "earthen vessel" with many faults and failings, but it still contains a "treasure" (2 Corinthians 4:7) -- that God's love conquers all, even death. Sitting in the midst of the that church, the place of his childhood faith, hearing the liturgies of his youth and speaking the prayers he still knew how to recite, Dan Savage's heart feels the comfort his head will not allow -- that God is with him in his suffering, and that God is present with his mother for eternity.  In his captivating story I hear this cry:  "Lord, I don't believe, help my unbelief!"

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