I was saddened to read and hear a story of a naval chaplain who had retired having lost his faith. He describes himself now as an atheist and a humanist. A lot of the material in his story was about – and the material was framed in a way that he was ‘chaplaincy reformer’ who met a lot of resistance – and many of his ‘reforms’ I think seemed sound to me – but essentially what you encountered here, in my opinion, was a person performing a role, speaking words, doing actions some of which he no longer believed. The issues, for me, are about honesty and integrity and also about being trapped. (What other job or pension is an aging chaplain going to get? Everyone has to eat.) People are trapped in all sorts of situations and have to live with things they may not like, tolerate, believe, and so on.
In terms of ministry, Lutherans believe that Jesus works through words, water, bread and wine and is present not on the basis of the ‘perfection’ of the pastor but because Jesus says so. The Apostle Paul was pleased that the Gospel was preached even by people with poor motives (Philippians 1:15-18). So baptisms or holy communions conducted by a pastor with struggles and doubts – or in this case – no faith anymore – are valid. I do wonder about pastoral care and counselling and how much of the inner world of a ‘no-faith’ pastor ‘seeps out’ when others have come for support and care but again this is something we’ll never really know – though, I think, we all hold to the importance of honesty and integrity.
Our world and living in it is messy. I understand. What saddened me – as it does with anyone who said they were a Christian and then they say they’re not – is that somewhere, somehow the world of faith has become darkened for them, has faded, and what they are left with is this world, their experiences, and their perspective inside their head. People may say that they are now ‘free’ or ‘enlightened’ or they have ‘grown up’. What triggers the darkness, the break, the choice that reality is only what we can see, experience, and measure can be many things – the most usual is suffering and the evil people do but it can be also can be an incident or moment eg. the death of a child or unanswered prayer – which triggers a response. Thus people don’t ‘lose’ their faith in that it is taken from them – it is not hidden from them (it is faith which is by definition beyond our senses!) – but fundamentally a choice happens, a behaviour, a decision, something done – possibly tiny – which begins a process of weakening the relationship with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t walk away to leave believers in the dark. People do things – in their heads, in their hearts, in their behaviour – which begins putting up barriers to words, water, bread and wine. My reading of Jesus’ comment to Thomas is for Thomas to stop putting up the barriers, to stop choosing not to believe. And yes, things can be done to people which begin those barriers too.
Personal faith is also often (always?) ‘messy’; a mixture of ups and downs, closeness and doubt, joys in the sunshine and cries in the dark. That is what we can experience. But the reality of the risen Jesus – his story of cross and empty tomb which opens up to landscape of sin and grace – hasn’t changed. Jesus continues to come to us – while our experiences of that are so mixed – but the truth always contained in those words, water, bread and wine remains and holds us – especially should our world give away or we even decide that there is no God. God doesn’t vanish nor does his heart for us change. So if the dead can be raised to new life then so can a ‘dead faith’. There is always hope – with Jesus.