So, with which doubting disciple do you most identify? Thomas, the one known as“the doubter,” or John, the one who kept having to remind himself that Jesus loved him?
When I found Thomas’ name among your submissions for this biblical character sermon series, I wasn’t surprised. There’s something about Thomas that resonates, isn’t there? One who doubts. Oh, yeah. That resonates! But Thomas also gives us hope…because he is a doubter who comes to believe. If a strong doubter like Thomas can come to believe, then maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for us, too, right?
Do you struggle with doubt? It’s a hard way to live, isn’t it? Growing up in a denomination that created nospace for doubt was hard for me. The favorite question of pastors in that denomination was: “Do you know that you know that you know…?” Everything wasblack and white. I’ve never been a black and white thinker. I can see both sides of just about any issue. And—gifted with a vivid imagination—I can believe just about anything….
…which doesn’t fly in black-and-white denominations. In black-and-white denominations, there is only one right way, one right answer, one way to believe. If you can conceive many ways to believe, you’re just wrong. And, oh yeah. You’re also going to hell. Because I didn’t “know that I knew that I knew” the “correct” answers about faith, I spent most of adolescence and young adulthood terrified of going to hell.
I discovered a poem this week by Anne, one of the Bronte sisters. I wish I’d found it when I was a teenager. It would have helped to know that someone else struggled to believe.THE DOUBTER’S PRAYER.
ETERNAL Power, of earth and air!
Unseen, yet seen in all around,
Remote, but dwelling everywhere,
Though silent, heard in every sound;
If e’erthine ear in mercy bent,
When wretched mortals cried to Thee,
And if, indeed, Thy Son was sent,
To save lost sinners such as me:
Then hear me now, while kneeling here,
I lift to thee my heart and eye,
And all my soul ascends in prayer,
OH, GIVE ME–GIVE ME FAITH! I cry.
Without some glimmering in my heart,
I could not raise this fervent prayer;
But, oh! a stronger light impart,
And in Thy mercy fix it there.
While Faith is with me, I am blest;
It turns my darkest night to day;
But while I clasp it to my breast,
I often feel it slide away.
Then, cold and dark, my spirit sinks,
To see my light of life depart;
And every fiend of Hell, methinks,
Enjoys the anguish of my heart.
What shall I do, if all my love,
My hopes, my toil, are cast away,
And if there be no God above,
To hear and bless me when I pray?
If this be vain delusion all,
If death be an eternal sleep,
And none can hear my secret call,
Or see the silent tears I weep!
Oh, help me, God! For thou alone
Canst my distracted soul relieve;
Forsake it not: it is thine own,
Though weak, yet longing to believe.
Oh, drive these cruel doubts away;
And make me know, that Thou art God!
A faith, that shines by night and day,
Will lighten every earthly load…
Yes, the thoughts, feelings, and uncertainty of doubt can be excruciating. But, as UCC pastor Martin Copenhaver suggests, they also can bea gift. The quotes on “The Gift of Doubt” side of your insert come from Copenhaver’s book, Living Faith While Holding Doubts.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but our ability to doubt is crucial to maturing in faith. Let me say that again. Our ability to doubt is crucial to maturing in faith.Think for a minute of what faith without doubt—“blind faith,” we sometimes call it–might look like. Without doubt, Copernicus never would have suspected that the earth orbitsthe sun rather than the other way around. Without doubt,Jim Crow laws would still be in force in the South. Without doubt, I’d never have outgrown the idea that women can’t be pastors.
These examples suggest that maybe a good question to ask when doubts arise is: To what deeper truth might doubt be leading us?
As uncomfortable as it is, doubt is what makes possible a real faith we can call our own. Copenhaver writes, “For beliefs to be truly our own, it is often necessary to disengage from our inherited beliefs in order that, at a different stage, we may come to believe again, but with a big difference. The beliefs are now our own… If we become free to doubt what we are told, we then become free to have our very own belief in God, a firsthand belief that is real and personal.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Doubting is good. It’s a gift. It’s a key ingredient to a grown-up faith. Great! But it still can be disconcerting, can’t it? Very disconcerting.
So, what do we do until our faith grows up? How do we handle the discomfort of doubt? Perhaps we can learn something from another of Jesus’ doubting disciples: John.I know. “Doubting Thomas” we’ve heard of. But “Doubting John?”
There are a couple of ways to interpret John’s insistence on identifying himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” Some interpreters say he was drawing attention to himself, making a distinction between him—the disciple Jesus loved—and everybody else, who Jesus merely liked.It could be that John was the biggest narcissist in all of Scripture and wanted to rub his intimate relationship with Jesus in everybody’s else’s faces.
But another interpretation rings truer for me….and explains why I think John might have been a doubter. What if John keeps calling himself “the disciple Jesus loved” because part of him didn’t believe it? Maybe John had to keep reminding himself of Jesus’ love for him because he doubted it was true.
On our “Five Monasteries and a Distillery” vacation last month, Allen and I visited the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Indiana. We stopped by to see my friend Sr. Betty. Sr. Betty is part of Women Touched by Grace, which means that we only had seen each other at Our Lady of Grace, the monastery I usually visit. The monastery at Ferdinand is Sr. Betty’s home community….so we wanted to stop by and see the place.
And what a place it is! The chapel was built in the 1920’s. Think of the Greek Orthodox church onTrickum Road, except twice as big and set up on a hill. The place is magnificent! Grand! Beautiful!Solemn.
Sr. Betty arranged for us to have a tour before we met with her. The tour ended in the reception hall–a stately, barrel-roofed brick passageway. As we waited, I kept saying to myself, “Be decorous and staid. Don’t act like a bumpkin. This is a monastery, after all.”
But when she appeared at the other end of the hall, I couldn’t help myself. I ran down the passageway waving my hands and screaming, “Sr. Betty! Sr. Betty!” And guess what? She was doing the same thing! “Kim! Kim!” We hugged and hugged. I don’t know where Allen was.
Later, as we reflected on that decidedly NON-decorous scene, Allen said, “Sr. Betty really loves you.” “How do you know?” I asked. “You could tell by the way she greeted you.” I thought about that. “But she greets everyone that way,” I said. “Yes,” Allen responded. “But yesterday, she greeted you that way.”
Sr. Betty is a lot like Jesus. As spiritual devotion writer, Gabrielle Bossis once heard Jesus say: “Every soul is my favorite.” Every person Sr. Betty knows is her favorite, too. I suspect that’s the kind of love John was trying to take in when he identified himself so many times as “the one whom Jesus loved”….He was just trying to get used to the idea, to take it in. Yes, he was trying to believe in Jesus’ love for him.
…which is why I’m suggesting that John was a doubting disciple.Maybe he kept reiterating Jesus’ love for him as a way to convince himself that that love was real.
I think sometimes when we get caught in the downward spiral of doubt, we forget about Jesus’ love for us. If the whole thing is bogus, if neither God nor Jesus is real, then why go there, right? Why believe in—much less depend on and be comforted by—divine love if the one extending that love doesn’t exist?
But maybe we’ve got the process backwards. Maybe it’s not that first we come to believe then we’re able to receive God’s love. Maybe belief comes after or in the process of receiving God’s love.
Also on our vacation I saw my spiritual director, Felicity. Spiritual direction is great, just great…until it gets annoying. Felicity’s favorite question of me—especially when I come into a session tired and cranky—is: “Kim, Do you believe God loves you?” My usual response is to remind her of our church’s mission, of how we say every week: ‘One fact remains that does not change…’Of how I preach God’s love every week.She always listens patiently….then asks: “Kim, Do you believe God loves you”? See what I mean? Annoying.
And right on target. Receiving God’s love—that’s where true belief begins. (Pause.)Do you believe God loves you?(Vickie sings “A Doubter’s Prayer.”)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
KimberleighBuchanan © 2013