Well, I broke it.
It was an alarm clock, a cream-and-gold relic of the 70s. “BABY BEN” it said on the face. “WESTCLOX.”
Before I broke it, a few winds of the key on the back and it would start a quiet, clockwork ticking, until a tinny bell jangled one awake.
I didn’t mean to break it. I was 11 or so, and I wondered how it worked, what moved inside it. I stared at the casing for a while before I got the screwdriver. I visualized what must be happening behind its gold hands: the winding mechanism would have some sort of spring that the key tensioned, a mechanism that must have a spindle (or something) attached to a gear (or three) attached to, uh, something, connected to something, connected to the hands. It seemed very simple until I took it apart.
Five minutes later, I sat above a cookie sheet holding the guts of the clock. There were more somethings than I had expected, in more complex configurations than I had imagined, and what had seemed very simple now seemed very, very complicated.
I had taken it all apart. It wasn’t in me to put it back together. I needed a guide.
That little bell never rang again.
I went through a season when my faith felt like that clock. I grew out of boyhood, into college age “on fire” and eager to serve God. I studied the Bible and theology in college, then went straight up the hill to a local seminary to cement my Hebrew and Greek. All the while I served in local churches, led worship, even preached on occasion. But at some point as I moved solidly into adulthood, I felt that my life was an old cookie sheet, and the various components of my faith were strewn across it, without a guide to put them all together again.
Those cogs and gears, in actuality, were doubts and doctrines. Did I truly believe that God made the world in six days about 5,000 years ago? If what I’d been told about gay marriage was true, why did some queer couples in my city seem to be in healthier relationships than many of my hetero friends? How about the Bible that I was learning to parse so efficiently, in three languages: was my holy book infallible? Inerrant? Inspired? Not what was I told, what do I think? What do I believe? I could go on—parenting, family dynamics, grief, friendship, neighborhood engagement, culture, church staff nightmares, on and on and on, so many gears and springs silently leaping out of the clock of my faith.
Eventually, by the grace of God and the gentle guidance of a wise spiritual director and couple other voices, the clock went back together—tighter and even better than before. It chimes beautifully these days. I know what I know, and I know what I do not know, and it all can be summed up simply as I am knowing God.
But I still look back on that time as one of great danger. If God had not been so gracious, or wise perspective so available, I fear that I might still be crouching over the scattered bits of my faith, staring numbly.
I don’t think I’m alone in my experience of spiritual disassembly. Most of the Christians that I respect have been through a similar process. So have most of the once-Christians that I respect: they simply came to a point where in honesty they could not call their pile of gears a clock anymore than they could put it back together on their own.
So at such moments of desperation and decision, what makes the difference between faith that is reassembled, and a boy or girl simply throwing their hands up in desperation and walking away?
Someone who knows where all those pieces go.
At such times of holy disassembly, we can’t put things back together on our own. We need a guide. Not any guide will do though, for (if the metaphor of clockwork can be sustained) merely knowing the schematics of human souls is not enough. It must be a guide who has survived the disassembly—and lived the reassembly. Who knows not only the schematics, the theory of how our Christianity ticks and keeps the time of our hearts, but knows the sharp edge of the inner springs, the heft or delicacy of every gear.
My own guides, and how I found them, are a story for another time. Just know that they came in at just the right moment, their very presence a quiet reminder that God cared.
Here are the qualities that such a guide, at least in my experience, possesses:
It does worse than nothing to look at something broken and say it is not broken. A good guide is candid and quick to speak the truth. This does not mean groveling in or obsessing over “brokenness,” but calling a sin a sin, and righteousness righteousness, a lie a lie, a truth a truth.
An honest guide will ground and steady a person looking at the inner gears of their faith, normalizing the experience and offering stable, caring vision. This honesty builds trust, a confidence that just maybe, the clock isn’t beyond running again.
The guide must also be able to validate an individual’s experience of doubt and struggle, by honestly being able to feel something with them (this is a tremendous struggle for me; empathy doesn’t come naturally). This often means that there is some overlap of experience—but if there’s something that the guide hasn’t experienced, they are honest and open about that too.
Empathy serves to reinforce, through every gesture, expression, phrase, and conversation, a vital message: You are not alone.
The effective guide is also a patient person. This takes two forms, at least in my experience: immediate and seasonal patience.
Immediate patience is the capacity for waiting and listening in the moment, the day-to-day. Effective guides don’t finish sentences. They don’t guess at what you’re feeling. They don’t try to get to the end before the beginning and middle are finished. Sometimes there’s silence while they’re waiting for you to struggle through a thought. Sometimes there’s quiet listening while you rail at some frustration or vent some anger. They allow a time to think, a time to speak, a time to listen. They wait.
And all this is usually a sign that such a guide has seasonal patience too. This is the kind of patience that gardeners have, when they plant tulip bulbs in the fall. They will wait all winter, dormant and sleeping. Will they sprout in the spring? Most of them, but not all. But how will they know which ones will? Not until March or so, when the first buds break the ground. This is the kind of patience that our guides have when answers aren’t quick or easy in coming. It is hard to wait, for any farmer, any pastor, any mentor. But there is nothing else to do. Dig to see if the bulb is sprouting yet? You’ll kill it. It is a gift to have someone who is all right with you walking your path in your time, trusting that the work God is doing may be invisible to you and them for a time, but is nonetheless real.
Patience also includes priority—knowing when to say what. As in a clock, the big pieces of faith must be firm before lesser truths or disciplines can be examined. Cement the personal call of Christ to die that you might live before you find, say, an answer to that pesky six-day creation issue.
A good guide has the simple gift of being able to see things for you that you cannot. They have faith on your behalf. They get specific glimpses of your future that carry tremendous power when one’s faith is disassembled. Simple statements, like “You’re going to feel love for God again someday,” or “This doubt is okay. Walk through it. You will come out on the other side stronger,” offer hope and faith on another person’s behalf. Sometimes, such sentences feel as buoyant as life rafts.
A good guide is full of faith. It is seasoned faith, faith that knows how to doubt, how to be tested and retested, but it is there and it is strong. Too often, in my circles at least, we equate fervent, active faith with naivety or innocence. It is very much the opposite.
There is the faith of a child, to be sure, and it can move mountains. But there is scarred and weather-beaten faith too, faith where every line of the face and grey hair tells a story. That faith can be fervent, steadfast, pure. It knows whom it has believed in, and is persuaded that he is able to keep that which has been committed unto him against that day. It looks to Jesus, simple and eager and bright and rooted and strong.
When you meet a person with that kind of faith, it helps you grip your own. You see the preciousness of belief, its rigor. You feel ready to spit back at life again, to try another run with God, to hang on.
Ah, presence. A good guide is not only there, they are there. They really see you. They really hear you. They are with you in the moment.
They make time for you, say no to other things in order to sit and sip coffee with you, to take one more turn around the block with you before going on with their day. They make themselves available, and their presence undoes a hundred lies that whisper how you’re no good at this Christian thing anyway and you might as well just put on sweatpants and watch Seinfeld all weekend.
A good guide must be joyful. I’m convinced that joy is the great forgotten power of the Christian life. We often subtly dismiss it. Because the experience of joy cannot be separated from the realm of feeling, we mistrust it, favoring more “objective” markers of faith and maturity. But I have never known a Christian I longed to emulate who did not walk in joy.
Joy is the child of freedom, the byproduct of being loved. It exists in us to the degree that we see things with God’s eyes. It is a barometer of the Spirit’s presence.
Joy is also the strongest kind of white magic. Merely being in the presence of true joy sanctifies the soul and points us to God. There is a lush and laughing human spirituality to a truly joyful heart. It is not light; it is weighty, with what the Hebrews might have called “qavod,” a heavy, rich abundance of glory. This joy brings life to dead things, and if there is death in us, joy, by the power of the Spirit, may dispel it.
Never underestimate the piercing potency of joy.
If you long to have such a guide as this, do two things: pray for one, with whatever faith you can muster, and ask for one, openly, with whatever boldness you may have. Ask those around you, for a mature believer, a lion with scars among the local pride. You will not regret it, and God will provide.
If you long to be such a guide as this, do the same things, but in quiet expectation that God longs you to use your gifts to intersect the life of another. To bring what he has given you to meet the needs they have, as someone once met yours. Own your story, and share it.
There are many names for this process of searching and guiding, disassembly and reassembly, but my favorite right now is “discipleship.” It is the Christian path, and there are some branches of the trail with milestones that everyone must pass. That is a hard and beautiful thing, the progress of many pilgrims.
The clock of my boyhood never went back together. Its bits went into a paper bag, to be put together “later.”
Later, of course, meant never.
But the faith of my manhood did go back together, under my trembling hands and another’s watchful, simple eye. In the end it was more real, even stronger than before.
And just this year, I looked into a young man’s eyes and saw a flash of something familiar. “Do you think we can get together sometime?” he asked.
I said yes, and yes again, and yes the time after that.
For him, I think, as for me, the gears are slowly going back together.
Paul J. Pastor is a writer, editor, and grassroots pastor living in Oregon. He is author of The Face of the Deep: exploring the mysterious person of the Holy Spirit(David C. Cook)