I don’t know anything at all about hunting pheasant. But I can imagine myself in the quiet mists of morning out in the wide open fields of Nebraska, standing beside the pick-up, tightening the boots, downing the last sip of coffee, loading up the guns and strapping on the orange vest, watching the dogs pace with excitement. I’m seeing through my husband’s eyes. He has hunted pheasant.
I smell the drying corn stalks and perhaps a whiff of burning leaves. The air is cold on my face, and my breath even casts a shadow. Far away there’s the low thrum of a tractor even though it’s the break of day. We’re on farmland, acres spread out in front of us as far as the eye can see, the farmer standing beside us. He casts an eye over the fields. Hidden in there are the birds, unseen, silent, hunkered in their secret lives. The trick is to find them. They don’t present themselves for target practice. They must be flushed out, and knowing where they hide, where to send the dogs to rout them out, is an art and a skill.
Farmer ponders the situation, weighing prior successes and failures, considering the temperature, the wind, the moisture in the air.
“This way.” He gestures to the western expanse, away from the rising sun.
“They’re over there?” we ask.
This short dialogue has really taken place, many times in fact, over years of hunting. This particular farmer considers, and knowing the fields, the birds, the dogs, the weather, and the season as he does, he chooses. He moves off down the rows into the fields. And in response to our last question – “They’re over there?” – he always has the one answer, the same answer.
“Could be wrong … [long pause] … but I don’t think so.”
A humble answer and yet a confident answer. Pheasant are wily creatures, unpredictable; they do, however, have habits and preferences that give clues to their behavior and choices. If you want certainty in the hunt, you go to a stocked hunting club where the pheasant have been placed for your guaranteed pleasure. But the real hunt demands the willingness to learn by trial and error, the readiness to succeed and the acceptance of failure. It demands choices. It requires the authentic unknown.
Can we do better than this in the hunt for God? He seems so elusive sometimes, so hidden, so disguised amidst the colors and scents and textures of our lives. He seems to want us to tramp the fields, weary ourselves with the pursuit, miss the sightings, come home empty-handed sometimes, and ultimately familiarize ourselves with his inexplicable ways.
Scott, our farmer friend, in some weird way reminds me a lot of a man Jesus encountered once. Jesus and three of his friends were away. The man brought his possessed son to the other nine disciples and begged them to heal the boy. They couldn’t. Wrapped in failure (though they had been given the authority to cast out demons by Jesus himself), they bickered and argued and blamed, while the man wrung his hands in despair.
Jesus came and immediately grasped the situation. Shoulda, woulda, coulda – but the futility and anxiety on everyone’s face was apparent. (Inner thoughts of the disciples… perhaps: “Am I the problem? What’s the glitch here? What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t this working?”)
Jesus: “Bring the boy to me.”
The father’s heart-rending plea: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” (Inner thoughts of the dad … perhaps: “Is he all they say he is? Is he my only hope? What am I going to do if this doesn’t work? Is this problem too big for him?”)
Jesus: “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.”
The father: “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”
Even in his statement of faith, the man humbly recognizes his vulnerability, his weakness, and hides nothing. He brings his belief and his unbelief to Jesus. Then, and only then, is Jesus ready to act.
The father’s desperation and doubt becomes the vehicle of his most potent act of faith – thrusting all onto the one, singular hope in the power and mercy of Jesus.
This, then, is the question: Are faith and doubt mutually exclusive? Does one always give way to the other? Or do they live side-by-side in a creative tension, a fertile field of humility and risk and defenselessness? Could it even be that our doubts – our times of spiritual darkness, our theological questioning, our confusion – are actually goads of faith, inciting us to greater risks, deeper plummeting into the depths of the Jesus Christ? Are our doubts, perhaps, merely the hunting dogs of our quest, flushing out the brilliant plumage and revealing what is hidden?
This is it, then. If you’re reading this, and you’ve ever tramped the fields of the spiritual quest alongside me, this is it. I’ve been down these cornrows hundreds of times. Come home empty-handed often enough. But all my belief – embedded in scripture, accounts of the church, lives of the saints, testimonies of the martyrs, consistent message of the gospel, and personal encounters – and all my unbelief – provoked by other faiths, unanswerable questions, contradictory stories, contrary experiences, opposing convictions – finally lead me to the same end: Jesus, the cosmic Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the One Who Holds All Things Together.
Could be wrong … but I don’t think so.