I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!
Let me explain. I may be a minister in the Methodist Church but I am not your garden-variety minister. (They grow ministers in the garden?) Anyway…I am an ordained Deacon. We are ‘specialist’ ministers, meaning that we have education in a specialty area, like Christian education, or music, or youth leadership, or counseling. This enables us to do ministry in a specialized field while the ordained Elders in the church are there to run the church, preach and teach, attend a million committee meetings, and do way too much work in general. My ministry is in counseling—I have a private practice—and when the Elders in my church need a little vacation or just some assistance, they’ll ask me to preach for the week.
So I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!
I preached on Doubting Thomas, which is the traditional scripture for the Sunday after Easter. We read this scripture after Easter for two reasons: 1) it is the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, and 2) so that we can exhort people to believe in the resurrection instead of being a ‘Doubting Thomas’. Doubting Thomas, bad! Believing, good!
Can you tell just how much I dislike the traditional interpretation of this passage of scripture?
Thomas always gets a bad rap, and it just isn’t fair. If you read the passage carefully (which you can do here) you will notice that Jesus almost immediately shows the other disciples the wounds in his hands and in his side, presumably to prove that the person who hung on the cross is the same person who is standing in front of them at that moment. So why does Thomas get such a bad reputation for wanting to see those same wounds before he believes that Jesus lives? It makes no sense.
I think part of the reason that I want to defend Thomas is because I relate to his wariness. It comes from my upbringing.
I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical non-denomination church. That is a lot to type, so for short, I’ll just call them fundamentalist. The people in that church believed…we firmly believed, and firm is the key word there. We knew what we believed and we could state it clearly, and we did state it…often. We were certain in our faith because anything less than certainty in that church was considered tantamount to saying that God wasn’t all that and a bag of chips…and if you are fundamentalist and evangelical, too, God is most certainly all that and a bag of chips and a couple of chocolate cookies on the side, and don’t you forget it!
And for lots of years that worked for me, until I got into college. And then I started encountering things that directly contradicted what I had been taught in church.
You see, the church I was raised in believed that all the mainline denominations were filled with ‘carnal’ Christians, meaning fake Christians who didn’t really believe the way they were supposed to. Basically, think “Christian in name only.” My church believed that every person who attended one of those mainline Churches was going to Hell…and of all the mainline denominations, my church thought the Catholics were the worst.
The problem for me was that I had become good friends with several Catholics during my freshman year of college. We talked about our faith quite a bit and I had learned a lot about what they believed and about Catholicism in general. After getting to know them, I found that I couldn’t go on believing that being Catholic was a bad thing…nor could I believe that my friends were going to Hell for being Catholic. It just made no sense.
And this put me at odds with my church. My very firm believing, enthusiastic, certain church who wasn’t going to be okay with me suddenly doubting their doctrines. Is God still all that and a bag of chips! You BET God is all that and a bag of chips!
I started reading my Bible, because I needed some answers. No matter how much I read (and I read a lot!) I wasn’t able to find anything that said “If you don’t believe in the exact right way or if you attend the wrong church, you are going to Hell.” That wasn’t in the Bible…anywhere. And of course, that made me start questioning a whole bunch of other stuff I’d been taught at church. For many people, this kind of questioning becomes the moment where they lose their faith. Thank God I didn’t lose my faith…but I definitely lost my faith in the church of my childhood. I began to question everything and where I had previously had a firm faith, suddenly all I had was doubt.
And this is where I get where Thomas is coming from when he refuses to believe the disciples.
I know that the scripture passage says that the disciples came to Thomas saying “We have seen the Lord” but I don’t think that’s how it went down, not really. That just seems too calm to me. If I just found out that my friend, the one I thought was dead, was actually alive, I’d be ecstatic, bouncing around the room, overflowing with joy. That’s why I am betting that the disciples were much more enthusiastic than that…somewhere along the lines of 10 guys, gesturing wildly, all talking at once, looking a little like a basketball team that just won the championship. I think all that enthusiasm and excitement was what made Thomas so wary.
It’s that funny feeling you get when someone is all wrapped up in their belief and they are so enthusiastic and so very certain and they want you to be so very certain too. They want you to jump into their belief like you would jump in a pool. Just immerse yourself totally and buy into whatever they are selling.
It reminds me of the church I grew up in, and it sets off all of my alarms every time I encounter it.
There is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about your faith, and there is nothing wrong with being certain that what you believe about God is true. Just remember that strong faith and certainty don’t develop overnight. They develop slowly, and usually there’s a good deal of questioning that goes on before anything gets strong or certain. Sometimes there is a good deal of questioning that goes on even after things are strong and certain…and that’s a good thing.
I’m a Methodist for a reason. In the Methodist Church, we lean on John Wesley for theological guidance…meaning that Wesley informs the way we think about God. The first thing you need to know about John Wesley is that he was not a fan of blind faith. While Wesley wouldn’t quite say it this way, I will: DON’T EVER TURN OFF YOUR BRAIN.
You see, faith isn’t about believing whatever you’re told by your pastor, or your teacher, or the televangelist. Faith is about reading the Word—not just a verse or two for inspiration. Read whole passages, whole books, maybe even the whole Bible. While you are reading the Bible, let yourself be informed by the Church and its teachings and its traditions, and then feed all of that through your own experiences and your reason…your brain…and then decide what you believe to be true.* And if you’re really smart, you’ll leave space for questions and doubt even after you’ve decided what you believe to be true. Faith built with room for doubt is a solid foundation for spiritual growth—a foundation that is firm but flexible enough to withstand serious testing. Anything else is like building your faith out of cotton candy where somebody else spins the tale and you just swallow it whole.
Doubt gets a bad rap, but the truth is that doubt can be one of the best things that happens to your faith.
Doubt is useful, not just because it slows you down and encourages you to question what you are being told, but also because it causes you to seek until you find the truth. Doubt will lead you on a search for God—one that might lead you away from the obvious places, if you let it. Doubt also turns out to be the biggest evangelism tool you have. You see, doubt isn’t an instance or a singular experience. People who create space for doubt within their faith discover that doubt is a kind of journey, a journey towards greater faith, and along that journey is where you’ll find the Seekers…the people who are still questioning if Jesus is the real thing, the people who are questioning if they can ever be Christian at all. There are folks who try to bring the message of Jesus Christ to Seekers by bringing them a shiny package of faith all sewn up and nicely decorated because they think that’s what the Seekers need. And I don’t know what’s worse: that the Seekers might run away from that shiny package and maybe end up running away from the church entirely, or that they might buy into it that shiny package, hook, line, and sinker! I know that this is probably not a very good thing for a pastor to say, but I don’t want people coming to my church looking to buy into a pre-packaged faith with all the accessories, because I can’t deliver that!
The funny thing is that God doesn’t deliver that either. God created you with a brain for a reason…and the reason is that God is really fond of reason. God created reason…and questions…and God created doubt, too. The world is littered with folks who used to believe and USED to have faith who lost their faith when their shiny, stiff, pre-packaged beliefs didn’t actually function in the day to day world, not in the long term. They thought that a nice stiff, strong faith would give them backbone and strength…when all it did was make them inflexible and prone to breaking when life got heavy. Faith that is able to accommodate doubt isn’t very shiny and it’s definitely not very stiff—in fact, it’s downright wiggly—but doubt blesses us with the flexibility to bend when life gets challenging. Doubt gives us space in our faith to accommodate new experiences, to struggle with horrible tragedies that make no sense, and to stand stunned in the face of unexpected discoveries and find our faith still intact…changed, but intact.
Better still, faith that can accommodate doubt can discover that Jesus lives in ways that we cannot yet imagine, in places that we thought that God would never go, to bring life in abundance to all the wrong people—sinners just like you and me—people who want to believe but who still have that one nagging doubt. God is fine with our doubt and it doesn’t scare Him at all, because doubt is the space where God likes to hide so that He can surprise us. God is good like that.
May you find your doubts like Easter eggs hidden in the grass, and when you open them, I pray that you find Jesus hiding inside. Just when you thought Easter was over…the resurrection goes on, and on, and on…
* We call this method the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.