I created Muddling Through Together in honor of my mother, an amazing Christian woman who died in 2015. I wanted to build a website and community that modeled her own faith journey, with doubts and questions, as both student and teacher.
How can Christians grow together in faith, learning from one another, embracing the messiness of life and love and death and despair?
I know I’m not alone with my questions, but sometimes it helps to have a concrete reminder that other devout Christians ask hard questions too.
John Pavlovitz is one of those Christians.
I recently read his latest book, Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional. (I received a paperback copy in exchange for my review). In this book, Pavlovitz asks hard questions, shares honest struggles, and admits to his own doubts about faith.
My mom would have liked this book.
Note: This post contains affiliate links, but all opinions are my own. Instead of writing a simple book review of Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional, I’m sharing my honest reflections on how the devotions connect to my own faith journey.
The Meandering Faith Journey
My mother was a woman of great faith, but she had her own years of wandering in the wilderness, separated from God. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and her older sister died a few years later. Her first marriage ended after just five years, when she arrived home to discover her husband’s things all gone. Where was God during this tumultuous period in her life?
My mother was a woman of great faith, who never stopped asking questions. Raised in the Lutheran church, she later joined the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church. Before she died, she was participating in the Education for Ministry program at the local Episcopalian Church.
My mother understood that no single church had a monopoly on faith–and she rejected the notion that God calls only a single gender to ministry.
The Christian Misfits
When I was a kid, still grappling with the basics of Christianity, I asked a lot of questions. My parents welcomed my questions, and they didn’t hesitate to admit when they didn’t have an answer. They encouraged me to be an active participant in my faith, even when that meant disagreeing with our church’s beliefs.
I recently explained why I’m a Christian misfit, but my mother was the original rabble-rouser in our family. When I texted my aunt (thanks Aunt Kari!) to help me fact-check my mom’s childhood, my aunt shared this story.
When my mom was a young girl, she and her friend (the pastor’s daughter!) got in trouble for going up for communion, even though they hadn’t yet been confirmed. They argued that the minister said, “All who believeth in me [Jesus] may come and partake.” After that, the church changed the rules on who could participate in communion!
No wonder my mom appreciated my earnest curiosity about our faith!
As I learned more about the Bible and the history of Christianity, I pushed back against the church institutions in my life. My faith and my convictions outgrew the limited confines of biblical womanhood prescribed by my home church.
Eventually I realized I couldn’t remain an active member of the ARP Church, which doesn’t ordain women or affirm same-sex marriage. I still love the many people there, but I can’t be one of them.
Hard Questions with John Pavlovitz
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Pavlovitz, renowned writer, pastor, and activist, to discuss his latest book, Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional. As already mentioned, I’ve read through this book once already, and I’m enjoying it again as part of my daily Lenten practice.
In Pavlovitz’s Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional, he wrestles with some of the hard questions of Christianity. How do I love other people when they’re so wrong? Do my doubts anger God? Why is it so hard to stay true to my convictions? Will God ever heal me?
Rather than offer trite answers, he welcomes readers to sit in that discomfort of unknowing.
Pavlovitz understands firsthand the meandering faith journey.
I asked Pavlovitz what he meant by “leaving behind even the religion we found comfort in.” He described his upbringing in the Roman Catholic Church, and shared that, despite the “many beautiful parts,” he wrestled with the rigidity, the sense of guilt, and the sense of fear.
His questions were not welcome.
Today, Pavlovitz’s faith is at a place where questions are “almost enjoyable,” having become “part of the journey, not something to apologize for.”
But the Catholic Church is not the only faith community to shun questions and doubts.
“Being a pastor for this long, my certainty was an asset. Any sense of doubt would have been looked at as character flaw. I think we do that in our faith communities too, where we’re terrified to say, ‘I’m not sure.’ I’ve left that part of religion. I realize that, if God is God, then God is not intimidated by my questions or surprised by my vacillation.”
Today Pavlovitz describes himself as a “spiritual mutt,” with past experiences including the United Methodist Church, Baptist communities, and Unitarian Universalist communities. Rather than identifying just one denomination, he loves “just being with people and experiencing the nuances of their expression of faith.”
Pavlovitz addresses doubt throughout his devotions.
On Day 8, he commiserates with “doubting Thomas,” who needed proof of Jesus’ resurrection. “This story with Thomas gives me hope that not only does God know exactly when and why I strain to believe in the times and seasons I do, but also that God is willing to let me have whatever will make the cloudy things clear, eventually.”
On Day 22, Pavlovitz reminds Christians that we don’t need to impress anyone with our faith. “Thankfully, whoever and whatever God is can bear the weight of our questions, takes no offense at our uncertainty, and welcomes the unadorned words from honest hearts.”
On Day 42, he reassures believers who have doubts. “…if God is God, God knows exactly the reasons you believe what you believe and the reasons you struggle to believe what you can no longer believe.”
Pavlovitz understands doubt as “life confronting our theology.” He wrote these devotions (and his Advent devotions) over a year and a half period during 2020 and 2021. The election. The pandemic. Racial tensions.
As Pavlovitz interacted with people during this turbulent time, he began to realize “how much accumulated stress people have built up,” which really tested their “spiritual convictions or religious traditions.”
Christians often confided in him, saying, “I have all of this turmoil and this inner turbulence.” As Pavlovitz reassured them in the moment, he reassures us all through his writing.
I used to be skeptical of people who called themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”
I get it now.
Life in communion with Jesus, and even in fellowship with other believers, doesn’t rely on a single church institution.
In his work as an author, pastor, and activist, Pavlovitz is constantly in fellowship with people who follow Jesus. He connects the stories about regular people in the Bible with the stories we all have as humans just doing our best. He loves “the opportunity to sit with people and to tell stories and to talk about scripture.”
This led to his decision to write two books of devotions. (The other is Low: An Honest Advent Devotional). “The devotionals allow me to focus on those inherent struggles that we all have.”
Pavlovitz takes the Bible stories we all know and examines them with fresh eyes. What are the “intersections of the life of Jesus with ordinary people, and what happens in those exchanges”?
Here are just some of the people Pavlovitz discusses.
- Bartimaeus, the blind man (Mark 10:46-52)
- The paralyzed man and his friends (Luke 5:17-26)
- The woman with the issue of blood (Matthew 9:20-22)
- Fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John (Matthew 4:18-22)
- Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-43)
- The woman with the perfume (Mark 14:3-9)
We know these stories, but what else can we learn from them?
Part of finding your own genuine, heartfelt faith is reading the Bible again, and again. Asking hard questions. Discovering new biblical commentaries and devotions.
With these two books of devotions, Pavlovitz invites readers to “encounter a story and be surprised by it again.”
I hope you know that God loves you.
Even when you’re doubting.
Even when you’re asking questions.
Jesus didn’t ask anyone to join a certain denomination. He simply told us to follow Him.
If you want to learn more about Jesus and the way He interacted with people, consider buying Rise: An Authentic Lenten Devotional.
To learn more about John Pavlovitz, visit his website and his social media channels.
If you need a friend or just a listening ear for those hard questions, I’m here. Let’s figure out this messy faith stuff together.