Inside the office of our National Guard recruiter, a nervous sergeant stood to attention before a small gathering of friends and coworkers. They’d rallied there to watch her reenlist in the U.S. Air Force.
The reenlistment opportunity comes every six years and gives the non-commissioned officer the choice of continuing a military career or being honorably discharged. If he or she decides to “re-up,” an officer will re-administer the oath of office. On this day, I was that officer.
The event reminded me of the decision we face during moments of crisis in our faith. In those crises, there is a decisive instant when we either choose to embrace our traditional faith or renounce it.
Can there be a third choice?
That’s the question asked by a pastor whose pregnant wife was admitted to our High-Risk Maternity unit for the duration of her pregnancy – which was coming to an abrupt end at 23 weeks.
When her nurse asked me to pray with the father, I felt some ambiguity because at 23 weeks, a baby might well survive – but in the poorest of condition.
I found the father outside the recovery room, but he quickly dismissed any suggestion to pray. He declared that God would save their newborn twins and asked to be left alone with his amen choir of parishioners.
Just before midnight, the first twin died.
The next morning, I stopped at the nurses’ station where I was told that the other twin had died too. As I turned toward the mother’s room, the nurse suggested, “I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.”
“Church members have been visiting all morning,” she said.
“That’s good, right?”
The nurse shrugged. “They’ve been bringing food, advice books and a lot of unwanted opinions.”
I winced on the last part. Bad Religion isn’t just a brand of jeans or a punk rock band, it’s also glib counsel given by people who are unable to sit with tragedy.
The couple reacted to bad religion by summarily dismissing every church member and pastor colleague who’d dared offer encouragement.
Nevertheless, I sailed into the room where the parents shot a few verbal salvos over the bow of my faith.
“We’ve served God honorably, and this is how God repays us?” asked the pastor. “Shortchanged,” added his wife.
I pulled up a chair and dropped anchor
“We’re never going to church again!” the pastor announced.
“Tell them to find another preacher,” said his wife.
I couldn’t blame them, so I just listened with my best nonjudgmental presence – no bad religion today.
At the end of the 45-minute visit, the grieving mom invited me to return for more visits. I did.
During my third visit, I found them packing for home. On the nightstand, I noticed a Phillip Yancey book, “Where is God When it Hurts?”
“Good read?” I asked.
She agreed. Her husband, silent. Still, I took that as a sign they were exploring a third option: that of revising their faith. Instead of embracing their childhood faith or renouncing their parents’ faith, they had begun revising and re-envisioning their own faith. But would they reenlist?
Ten months later, I met the couple at the hospital’s annual memorial service. He’d resigned his pastoral duties. They were attending another church, but as parishioners and not staff members.
They’d stretched their faith as far as it could go and found what the psalmist revealed in Psalms 139:8 “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”
In the end, they’d both re-upped.