Monday, November 28, 2011

A Hackberry Faith

"Then I say the Lord's Prayer, trying not to recite it, and one morning it occurred to me that a prayer, whether recited or said with concentration, is always an act of faith." ("A Father's Story" by Andre Dubus)

Yesterday, something my pastor said in his sermon made me pull out my pocket notepad and write, "Our faith is a hackberry tree."

For readers who are unfamiliar with the hackberry tree, it is often referred to as a "trash tree." It will "weep" on your car if you park under it. It will send out its roots along the top soil and other trees will sprout up like weeds from one tree. They don't really produce anything of use. No fruit, no useable lumber. They're more a nuisance than anything else.

They're also very hard to kill. Chopping down a hackberry tree is to invite a shrub of sprouts from the routes in the next growing season. I did a web search on "how to kill a hackberry tree," and found the most common suggestions were high powered herbicides (some of them controlled by the government) or kerosene poured on the stump---sometimes a combination of the two was suggested. So you have to poison a small patch of ground to kill a hackberry tree. And because the root system will travel, there's no guarantee that you've absolutely killed it. If it's not in an area that is mowed regularly, it's quite likely that the next growing season will find a sapling (or 3 or 12) a few yards away.

And, of course, when I said "our faith" in my notepad, I was using the first person singular "our," the "royal our," if you will. My faith is a hackberry tree. Of questionable use and hard to kill. A "trash faith."

If you've read the spotty entries in this blog over the last year, you might rightly guess that I'm grumpy, mostly with the institution of the church. It's fair to say that I've lost my faith, really, although where I end up is in this ecclesiastical agnosticism. While I remain a theist (as I did the last time I went through this cycle), believing in God, I'm not sure that I believe in the church. And when you lose faith in the church---a large part of that faith being in the teachings of the church---the theism becomes a little vague.

About twelve years ago, the last time this happened, I would tell people, "I believe in God, I just don't know what I believe about God." That's less true this time, as having gone through this ecclesiastical agnosticism before, I feel somewhat secure that I've rebuilt a theology that is a little more solid than what I had before the first loss of faith. Still, I hear things said with such appalling certainty that I end up wondering if I can say I'm a Christian. I can say I have a "Jesus thing going on," I can even say that I want to follow Jesus---I'm just not sure how much I can say I'm a Christian, given all the things I hear being said about what a Christian is.

This is not terribly unsettling to me. I'm not worried about it, honestly. I puzzle over it, especially when I'm sitting in church, filling a role as "assisting minister" and questioning every third line that I lead the congregation in saying. I puzzle over my integrity, over my hypocrisy in doing this. But it's not worrisome.

I suppose it was more unsettling last time, but having gone through it before, I know there is little bad to come from it and some good to be found. I take comfort in the line above, from Andre Dubus' much-anthologized story. An uncertain faith is still expressed as a faith, even when it's not done with full attention and conviction.

And so, barring someone coming along with kerosene and herbicide, I trust my trash faith will sprout again. And I shouldn't be so hard on the hackberry tree. It will provide shade, no small thing in a place like Texas. In fact, I hope this open expression of doubt will offer some comfort. If I have experienced one recurring theme among the unchurched, it's their discomfort with certainty. Well, here's my uncertainty. It's an expression of faith, actually, and by some accounts, it's not a very useful faith. But settle here for a bit. Find some cooling comfort here, especially if you've been burned by certainty. Even if it's a severely pruned faith, it'll bush out again soon enough.

‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.

Job 14:7


  1. So what, exactly, do you mean when you use the word "church here?

  2. That's a good and fair question. I'm not sure I have a precise answer, other than you are right to call me on defining a slippery term. Do I mean the universal church, my denomination, or my local congregation? I think yes to each, in different ways, at different times. It's all rather wrapped around each other for me.

    And so I think I'll stop writing about it for a bit until more clarity comes along.

    Also: I would say the main point probably isn't that the/a church can be a frustrating, even hurtful place. The main point is that I recognize that *I'm* grumpy with it and this is, at least to some large extent (no less than 50% and quite often more) my own personal failing. And that I recognize that this feeling comes and goes. And that there will be renewal somewhere along the way. And . . . that there is always another and. :)

  3. I wasn't calling you out. I was merely looking for clarity. 8^)