How I discovered Philip Yancey in a faith crisis and how I thought “Disappointment with God ” was an atheist book. Also why do the Neo-Calvinists have a problem with Philip Yancey? Finally I want to highlight Mike Hellum an Evangelical Free pastor at Westmark Evangelical Free in Loomis, Nebraska for promoting “Disappointment with God.” It is my belief that Mike Hellum is a gift to the EFCA denomination.
“As far as Scripture goes, the Psalms are full of David’s honest and angry cries to God. You can express your grief, your hurt, your anger towards God. It’s not “un-Christian,” or somehow less than acceptable.”
Mike Hellum from the Westmark EFCA Webpage
“I found that for many people there is a large gap between what they expect from their Christian faith and what they actually experience. From a steady diet of books, sermons, and personal testimonies, all promising triumph and success, they learn to expect dramatic evidence of God working in their lives. If they do not see such evidence, they feel disappointment, betrayal and often guilt. As one woman said, “I kept hearing the phrase ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ.’ But I found to my dismay that it is unlike any other personal relationship . I never saw God, or heard him, or felt him, or experienced the most basic ingredients of a relationship. Either there’s something wrong with what I was told, or there’s something wrong with me.”
Philip Yancey in his foreword to Disappointment with God.
My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint in the streets of the city.
Lamentations 2:11 NIV
When I was in my faith crisis I had rejected and pushed back from Christianity. I have written about that in “Eagle Writes a Journal Entry Inspired from Neil Carter’s Godless in Dixie on Grieving the Loss of Your Faith” and “What Does a Faith Crisis Feel Like?” In the process of a faith crisis I took a lot of books, notes, outlines, sermon talks, etc… and threw a lot in the trash. Some went into the garbage where I lived, others went into the nearby dumpster. As I was convinced that Christianity was a cancer it was something that just seemed normal at the time. In the process of trashing my Christian books, I came across a book in my collection called “Disappointment with God” by Philip Yancey. I was surprised by the title and so I put it aside thinking it was an atheist book. After all who is disappointed with God? I never heard that before. It was around this time that I read William Lobdell’s “Losing My Religion” and I was starting to read, or watch atheist material on Youtube.
Sometime later I sat down and started to read “Disappointment with God” and became engrossed on my couch. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, I set out to read an atheist book and instead I found one dealing with the topic of doubt in a very different way. I couldn’t believe in what I was reading about Richard. Its in chapter 2 if you want to read it. It was the story of a man who had a faith crisis. Philip Yancey wrote about how he helped write a book with Richard, a Wheaton Grad student and then wrote the forward. The man who wrote the book then had a profound faith crisis. Philip wrote about the man who struggled with the issue of doing God’s will – until that will backfired on him. Richard endured problem after problem – a job had fallen through, his fiancée left him without giving him a reason, there were physical problems as well. When Richard tried getting answers in the church it often failed. He then talked about going to a church service in which they discussed a situation where there was a plane crash in the Alaska outback. All on board were killed. And then the pastor introduced a another member of the church who that very week survived a plane crash. After the survivor gave his testimony the church exclaimed “Praise the Lord!” Then the pastor closed out in prayer asking that those who died in the Alaska wilderness be remembered in prayer. Meanwhile he thanked God for the survival of the person in the plane crash. Richard thought to himself, “You can’t have it both ways!” Richard spoke about how that prayer brought about a form of revulsion. On the last night of being a Christian in anger Richard burned a lot of his books. He burned his Bible, seminary textbooks, notebooks, and as he burning his books he was stopped by a fireman asking what he was doing. Richard had his experience in the backyard of his apartment. When I was in my faith crisis one of the most memorable experiences was when I was alone in my apartment screaming “Fuck you” to God. It was late in the evening and I wanted to blasphemy the Holy Spirit and tell God to fuck himself. Like Richard I also was done with Christianity. Today years later I wonder what the neighbors thought to hear a 36 year old man scream profanities at the top of his lungs. Its amazing I didn’t have the police knock on my door for a noise complaint.
When I read Chapter 2 of Disappointment with God I was stunned. In the course of time it would become a lifeline. As I consumed Greta Christina, Seth Andrews, Christopher Hitchens and more; Phillip Yancey would be the only Christian author I read. When Borders went out of business I loaded up on the Philip Yancey I could get and I read through it. It felt weird being outside Christianity and into atheist material and then reading this one Christian author. I felt guilty about it but for some reason I could not put him down. It was almost like porn in a way. Here I was committed to skeptical thought, publically proclaiming myself to be agnostic, when I was more of a militant atheist. And then in the quietness of my home from time to time I read Philip Yancey trying to figure things out.
Why Do the Neo-Calvinists Have a Problem with Philip Yancey?
In my faith crisis I was unsuccessfully recruited into the last church plant from Sovereign Grace Ministries here in the Washington, D.C. area. The church was Eric Simmons Redeemer Arlington. I had a co-worker (Andrew White) who tried to get me involved. During this time as I was reading Philip Yancey Andrew, White contacted me at work. He asked me if I would be willing to read Randy Alcorn over Philip Yancey. As I recall he told that it was better to read Randy Alcorn and that he was more sound. I was puzzled. I knew who Randy Alcorn was, but I was not impressed with his work at all. I told Andrew that I will stick to Philip Yancey. Again as I recall later on Andrew tried to get me to read Randy Alcorn. As I recall he said he would buy me the book and that I had to agree to stop reading Philip Yancey. Andrew never followed through with that act. And it leads me to something that helped bring this post about.
Why did a Christian who boasted of having “sound doctrine” try and get an agnostic/atheist from reading a Christian author who is well known, respected and proven? Why would any Christian try and get that agnostic/atheist to stop reading that author? Why do people in the Neo-Calvinist movement have such a problem with Philip Yancey? Is it due to the fact that he deals a lot with intimate and difficult questions? Is it due to the fact that he spends a lot of time in questions and doesn’t give neat and tidy answers? I mean after all when John Piper has an answer for every tornado, and bridge collapse is it unacceptable to say “I don’t know?” as Philip Yancey can do after wrestling with the question? It begs the following question from my stand point. What is faith? Is it faith when you struggle with a question like the problem of evil and while doubting still choose to believe in the end? Or is it faith to have every answer and always have a response? Many people want their faith to be nice and neat, and I honestly think that is unrealistic and far from what faith is to be discovered. For example Philip Yancey goes into areas and wrestles with difficult topics. How many times has he written about the issue of pain and suffering? Pain and suffering is a difficult topic that even C.S. Lewis struggled with in the end, especially after watching his wife die of cancer. Speaking of pain and suffering here is a perspective on how some people handle the topic from differing points of view. “Thoughts on Pain and Suffering: Differing Perspectives from Scott Hamilton, Ben Petrick, and Derek and David Carr.” But what I do not get is why some people like Randy Alcorn. Randy Alcorn as I look at it is part of the Reformed Industrial Complex. In the Neo-Calvinist world faith has become a business, an industry that is about publishing, conferences and money. And Randy Alcorn fits well into that picture. But what taints Randy Alcorn I would suggest is his ties to Sovereign Grace. I wrote about that in “Is Randy Alcorn’s Recent Blog Post Subtly Addressing the Child Sex Abuse Allegations in Sovereign Grace? A Response from a False Accusation Survivor.“ Today’s post is one that I have been wanting to do for a while. But as I write this I can’t understand why some people have an issue with Philip Yancey? Like I said he is bold in willing to write about topics and issues that many people are afraid to touch. How many people are willing to wrestle with the problem of evil, pain and suffering, unanswered prayer, what is faith or the countless other issues he takes on? But then there is another issue with Philip Yancey that I also discovered. When I was involved in Fairfax Community Church which is part of the Church of God in Anderson, Indiana denomination, I once asked Andy Gingrich why don’t they promote Philip Yancey? At the time he said that they didn’t want to promote books like Disappointment with God because it wasn’t appropriate. In the Neo-Calvinist world it can be a sin to question God. Outside the Neo-Calvinist world you can encounter situations in which you are in a church that has a “rah rah” approach to Jesus and you have to focus on the positive. You can’t deal with the harder issues in life. That’s a part of prosperity theology I would suggest. But getting back to the topic at hand a couple of months ago I found something unique that I just wanted to highlight. While this blog writes about issues and problems in the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) I am also committed to highlighting and writing about positive or good aspects to the EFCA. When I was calculating the growth of Neo-Calvinism in the Midwest District of Kansas and Nebraska I came across a unique pastor called Mike Hellum who leads an EFCA church in Loomis, Nebraska called Westmark. I will go into more detail below.
Who Is Mike Hellum of Westmark Evangelical Free?
Mike Hellum and his wife Wendy come from the Seattle area which is where he has spent most of his life. Mike’s background I believe is in the Assemblies of God. Mike did his undergraduate work at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington. He majored in Religion and Philosophy and was the Religion and Philosophy Student of the Year in 1994. Instead of attending Assembly of God Theological Seminary he attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After graduating he then obtained his Masters in Divinity from Columbia Evangelical Seminary in the field of Apologetics.
According to his Linked In profile Mike worked in the business world for almost a two decades before he was unjustly fired. You can listen to Mike talk about it in this sermon at Elim Evangelical Free Church in Puyallup, Washington. One quick point I want to add, is that I just completed the analysis of the Pacific Northwest District of the Evangelical Free Church of America. In 2012 Mike served as the Adult Discipleship pastor at Snowy Range Evangelical Free in Laramie, Wyoming. Mike then came to Westmark Evangelical Free in 2015. Mike and his wife Wendy have three boys and have been married since 1987. Those three boys are Nathaniel, Benjamin, and Samuel. Mike likes to run, cycle and is into cross country skiing. He also loves to watch soccer.
Some Thoughts on Your Unjust Firing
When I research and write posts such as this one I do a lot of probing into the churches and pastors I write about. The internet is a goldmine, all one needs is to know how to pry into it. And with internet archives the sky is the limit. In researching Mike Hellum I learned about his unjust firing from LexisNexis Martindale – Hubbell which he discusses in his sermon at Elim Evangelical Free Church in February 2010. I don’t know all the details but I wanted to say the following to Mike. I know what it feels like to be betrayed. I know what it feels like to be stabbed in the back. In my story I had a friend who drank the Sovereign Grace Kool Aid who was trying to get me involved. In my own way I was drinking the Christopher Hitchens Kool Aid. Yet Andrew White who was an Air Force Captain who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2005 gave birth to a false accusation and claimed that I was a threat to his family. This false accusation happened after he invited me into his home, asked me to change the password to his computer so he could be sexually pure, and made me a grilled cheese and ham sandwich. And I’m not getting into all the times he wanted to have coffee, grab lunch, or have dinner. He was evangelizing me for two years. Tragically a member of the Air Force taught me why rape and sexual assault is a major problem in the United States military on May 8, 2013. And to top if off it came from a guy who spent a lot of his time listening to Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Matt Chandler. All this talk by Andrew about “sound doctrine” and instead he turned around and become my personal Judas Iscariot. Mike, I can’t express how many times I woke in the dead of night sobbing in psychological pain. I pray for him today from time to time and hope that he can become like Peter instead. He doesn’t have to be a Judas Iscariot, if that happens its because he has embraced that role. In light of your circumstances you might find this post “The Theology of Betrayal” helpful. But I want Mike to know that I can empathize deeply and mourn with him. You will not understand a false accusation unless you go through one. All the writing, posts, and conversations I can have in person or on the phone with someone can not reveal how psychologically terrifying it can be. I write all this to say that I am profoundly sorry for the pain you went through. In the future Mike I may use your sermon at Elim as a post and offer some feedback based on my experience. We’ll see I am drowning in material to write.
Promoting Disappointment with God and Discussing Grief
When I was working through the Midwest District of the EFCA I was pleasantly surprised to see Westmark promote Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God. Its long past time that we have an honest discussion on why and how healthy it is to be open about our disappointment with God. In my adult Christian journey I honestly hope one day I can go in to a church and hear an expository sermon on why its okay to be disappointed in God. That would be profoundly refreshing. How many people in a faith crisis would be helped? How many people who have a medical crisis going on in their family would be strengthened? How many doubters could think in the privacy of their minds” I am not alone…” How many people who have been fried by the church could find comfort and rest. But most important of all how many people would actually see the Psalms and Book of Lamentations come alive during a difficult time in their life? To otherwise ignore the issue of grief along with pain and suffering is far from sound. But stop and consider what Mike writes on his webpage about grief.
Pastor’s Note to Those Near the Grieving
When tragedy strikes someone we know and they’re grieving, I suspect every single one of us wonder what we should (or shouldn’t?) do. That’s normal.
Let me recall my own personal experience in the hopes that it provides some insight. It’s not definitive–it’s just what we experienced.
When Wendy and I were grieving our loss, we wanted our close friends to gather around us. Badly. Quite honestly we didn’t want nominal friends around, but we definitely wanted our trusted and intimate friends near (if you are a casual friend–a heartfelt sympathy card might be enough).
Here’s the catch, though: we were too proud to reach out to them and tell them we needed them. But if they asked, or reached out to us, or just stopped by, or even called and told us they were coming by (i.e., they didn’t ask–they announced), we appreciated it. We deeply appreciated it.
If you have a close friend who’s grieving, you’ve already earned the right to be there. In many ways, you’ve incurred the obligation. Make your presence felt frequently. They need you.
One more thing: don’t ever feel like you have to have answers. Sometimes there aren’t any. Don’t ever feel inadequate because you don’t know what to say. Say nothing; that’s fine, maybe even preferable. Your presence is the most important thing.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget when a good friend of ours came over one afternoon. He didn’t say anything. He just broke down and cried for our loss. That might rank as one of the most powerful moments of my life.
Just my thoughts.
This blog has written some difficult issues in the EFCA. I have written about how EFCA President William Hammel allegedly treated a spiritual abuse survivor and threatened to sue. I have written about allegations of spiritual abuse in an EFCA/Acts 29 hybrid in Columbia, South Carolina. Then there is the story of Steve Estes and Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. In that horrific story an EFCA pastor practiced church discipline and excommunicated his former daughter-in-law whom his son allegedly raped while drunk. The issue went all the way to the leadership in Minneapolis who were indifferent to the situation. In addition to these told stories there are some disturbing ones in the works. But I write all that to say the following. While there are some serious problems with the EFCA there are some good features to the EFCA; one needs to know where to look. And as this blog writes about the EFCA its my goal to promote or highlight the beautiful aspects of this Evangelical Christian denomination. And that is what I want to do with this post. When I came across Mike Hellum’s page on grief and loss I was deeply moved. Evangelical Christians don’t know how to handle grief and mourning. That is why I wrote about this issue of pain and suffering in an Evangelical Free recently in Wichita, Kansas. But to have a pastor who frankly gets the topic of grief is beautiful. Its rare when you find it, but when you do you want to commend it, because in the course of time we are all going to deal with grief in one shape, manner or form. I think that Westmark Evangelical Free in Loomis, Nebraska is profoundly fortunate to have Mike Hellum as their Senior Pastor. I hope the congregation realizes this as well. So as I close this post out I just want to highlight a part of the EFCA which I found to be refreshing. Well with that I will let you go, and please know that I love you guys.