April 21, 1998
Dr. (Fred) Chay,
Is it always like this?
They never call or stop you on the street 10 minutes after class when everything is fresh in your head. They never call when you’re in the zone and able to reference Scripture and quote famous theologians regarding any topic they throw at you.
No. They call when you’re buried in paperwork and ministry details, when your Bible is somewhere on the shelf but you can’t remember where you put it.
This isn’t the first time by any stretch. As a staff member of First Baptist-Tempe, I’ve taken more than a few random calls from strangers. I’m sure this one won’t be the last. That’s what ministry is about, right?
This afternoon “Donna” opened the Yellow Pages, picked a church number and called. She got me. She said she was doubting her faith as a 48-year old mother.
“If God knows everything”, she wondered, “why did He kick Satan out of heaven and put him on earth when He knew that we would be hurt by Satan being on the planet? The way I figure it, God is responsible for all the evil in life.”
No “can I have a minute of your time?”.
Just straight into the big dog “how can a loving God allow evil?” question.
“Is there any particular circumstance in your life that’s been a catalyst to get you thinking about this?”
“My first two children were born blind, deaf, epileptic, and mentally retarded. My third child was born perfect. Now he’s 16, a Satanist, and in jail.”
Somehow I wasn’t expecting that answer when I asked the question.
After 30 minutes of listening and asking questions, all while trying to imagine the unimaginable circumstances she described, I carefully point her toward appropriate Scriptures (I managed to find my Bible).
We seemed to end on a positive note. I tried to encourage her, though I’m sure my words fell short.
Who knows, we may even see her in church some Sunday.
“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful. I feel better,” she said. “Before I called I was just sitting here very angry with God. Benny Hinn was on TV and watching him made me grab the phone book to call someone.”
Resisting the urge (and it was a strong one) to discuss Benny Hinn and how watching him makes me angry, I gently suggested that spending time in Romans 8 would be a better idea.
All this to say thank you for pressing us neophyte theologians to read, to know our stuff, to be in touch with our culture, and to be prepared to field the hard questions of life and theology that the John and Jane Doe’s of the world have on their minds.
Theology may be learned in the classroom but it’s done on the street and in the coffee shops. Whatever grades we get, our preparedness for the “Yellow Pages pick a number” phone calls is probably a better measure of our effectiveness.
Thanks for doing your best to prepare us.
See you in Church History.
In the years since I typed that letter, I’ve taken a lot more phone calls. I’ve heard people describe hard realities I can’t imagine. I’ve engaged in many workplace conversations about God and life and the questions that, like it or not, we don’t have satisfactory answers to this side of heaven.
Going on 20 years later, the questions aren’t any less daunting.
Our graduate school professors were fond of saying, “the purpose of a seminary education is to raise one to a higher level of known ignorance.” I don’t know a better way to explain it. I’ve never felt dumber in my life than the night of my seminary graduation. Dressed in all the academic regalia, sitting next to my good friend Mark Smith, we listened to Dr. Dennis Wretland read the selected Old Testament text in Hebrew more fluently than we could read it in English.
I looked at Mark and said, “I got nothin’.”
It still feels like I got nothin’. I’m reminded daily of how precious little I know. Yet God, in His purpose, chooses to allow me to participate in building His kingdom. That the perfect, sovereign, self-complete Creator God desires a relationship with someone like me who’s got nothin’ is a mystery.
Or as Frederick Beuchner wrote, “Salvation is a divine joke in which God and man laugh together.”
The more I learn, the higher my level of known ignorance. Put another way, the more I realize my nothingness, the more I realize God’s great goodness.
I got nothin’.
But God loves me.
And that is everything.
“For God showed His great love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
– Romans 5:8
Todd A. Thompson – toddthompson.net